• A key issue highlighted on the day was the growing threat from asbestos in Kent and Medway’s school buildings. This issue was addressed by National Union of Teachers (NUT) representative John Reeves and Jeremy Horton, Industrial Disease specialist at Brachers who were both speakers at the event.

    In this article, Jeremy explores this issue further.

    John Reeves advised us that over 80% of schools in Kent & Medway still contained old asbestos. As the asbestos continues to deteriorate this presents an ever increasing health risk not just to teachers but also to our children attending the county’s schools. In the National Audit Office’s recent report Capital Funding for Schools, four warnings were given that “asbestos is a significant, and potentially dangerous, issue in many buildings, including most schools.” Recent governments’ failure to engage with the scale and gravity of asbestos in schools is underscored by proposed funding cuts announced in February 2017 by the Education Funding Agency. According to the Local Government Association, this could leave councils and academies “unable to meet their obligations to manage asbestos in school buildings” from September 2017.

    This is a risk whose damage may not be fully realised for decades yet and the cause will mostly not occur for twenty to seventy years from now. It is expected that by the middle of this century across the UK every year we are likely to be see hundreds of former teachers and pupils dying from mesothelioma contracted from their asbestos exposure at school decades earlier.

    The problems arise from the post-war building boom. Until the early 1980s asbestos was regarded by the building industry as the “magic material”– renowned for its strength, fire resistance and insulating properties. It was seen as the ideal product needed immediately after the Second World War to reconstruct bomb-damaged schools (and hospitals and homes). The Second World War had seen widespread fire damage in the aftermath of German bombing raids and in that context it’s perhaps understandable how asbestos was viewed as just the right stuff to make our new buildings strong, safe and fire resistant. After all, just think of the awful scenes we’ve just witnessed at Grenfell Tower with cladding from a flammable product leading to the rapid spread of fire that’s taken the lives of so many. Asbestos cladding would have prevented that. But of course, this so-called wonder product had a dark and dirty secret. Whilst asbestos could potentially save lives from fire it was itself highly dangerous.

    We now have the very strict legal protection of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987 (replacing previous regulations from 1931 and 1969) as well as the EU-required Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. And since 1999 the use of all asbestos, even the supposedly less hazardous white (chrystotile) has been banned in the UK. Thankfully we no longer regularly expose our construction workers and other trades to asbestos in their daily work. However, shockingly we still expose many of our children and their teachers to asbestos from their school buildings. Their exposure results from the gradual deterioration of old asbestos installed decades ago in, for example, ceilings, walls, windows and door frames of school buildings. In its deteriorated state small amounts of asbestos dust could be given off even from actions as innocuous as a door being slammed shut or sticking a drawing pin in a wall.

    As a former Physics teacher John Reeves observed how shutting a door will change the air pressure which could cause loose particles of old asbestos in walls to rise up and collect above ceiling tiles. Later small amounts of those asbestos particles could just float down on the unsuspecting pupils and teachers below who without knowing could breathe in the deadly fibres.

    As John Reeves acknowledged, the level of asbestos exposure of our teachers and pupils is much lower and the individual risk much less than construction trades who used to work with asbestos. However, just among teachers alone the reported total deaths from mesothelioma between 1980 and 2015 were 319. John Reeves cited US research which suggests for every teacher death ultimately we will probably see ten times the number of pupil deaths. Bear in mind that in theory it just takes one fibre of white asbestos to cause the always fatal asbestos cancer mesothelioma. The less fibres you breathe in the less the risk, but the risk is still there. With asbestos exposure in schools, it is the sheer numbers of people exposed that increases the collective risk. Whilst the asbestos exposure is usually at a very low level we could ultimately be talking about exposure of over 80% of every child in this country and tens of thousands of teachers. In this century the total numbers who will be subjected to this low level school asbestos exposure could eventually amount to tens of millions. This is far more than the numbers exposed from our construction trades in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Even if the risk of mesothelioma from low level school exposure was say as low as 0.1% if the number exposed was say 10 million we could eventually be looking at 10,000 mesothelioma deaths from asbestos exposure in our schools.

    All schools are now required to record if they have asbestos in their buildings. They are then required to monitor the condition of the asbestos in their school and maintain a risk register. However, there is little regular monitoring to check just how safe our schools are from asbestos and very few schools/councils now have the money to remove and replace any asbestos found to be unsafe.

    What is really needed is a plan, funded by central government, to gradually remove the asbestos that now infects most of our school buildings like a cancer and indeed is itself causing cancer. This year in the recent election we saw for the first time a major UK political party commit to the phased withdrawal of asbestos from all UK schools – in the Labour Party’s manifesto. This is something that asbestos campaigners had been lobbying for over many years.

    Graham Dring, Chair of the Asbestos Victims’ Support Groups Forum (UK), commented:

    “We welcome Labour’s pledge for a phased removal of asbestos in schools. This problem has been ignored for too long by Government. The combination of lax asbestos management and inadequate funding for schools’ maintenance and repair is putting the safety of school children, and teachers and other school workers, at risk.”

    Whatever party is in power over the next few years let us hope that they adopt this policy. For those teachers and pupils already exposed to asbestos at school nothing can be done to prevent them developing mesothelioma in later life. However, the gradual withdrawal of asbestos from our schools could yet save thousands from a dreadful disease taking them before their time.

    This content is correct at time of publication

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