Asbestos awareness and the risk of exposure to asbestos in schools has been highlighted once again with a debate held in the House of Commons in response to a recent report by All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health.

Over a thirty year period from 1945 until a ban enforced by the Control of Asbestos Regulations from the mid 1980s, around 14,000 schools were constructed, half of which, were system-built using materials made from amosite and chrysotile asbestos fibres.

In 1967, the Department for Education reported very low levels of asbestos exposure were putting pupils and teachers at risk of inhaling asbestos dust. White chrysotile asbestos, considered a less toxic but still potentially dangerous material, was still used in insulating board (AIB), surface coatings and cement products until finally banned in the late 1990s.

While viewed ‘low risk’, the release and inhaling of white asbestos fibres can still cause asbestosis diseases or the fatal, incurable cancer of the lung linings, mesothelioma. A long gestation period of up to 50 years may elapse before the first signs of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms emerge, often at an advanced stage of the disease.

Between 1980 and 2005, both school teachers and college lecturers were included in the 272 who died from mesothelioma. From 2001 to 2005, the fatality figure was 103, of which, a number were teaching or childcare assistants, and those working in higher education. School caretakers, secretaries, cooks and cleaners have also been recorded as victims of mesothelioma.

According to surveys conducted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there are still hundreds of schools containing asbestos material that fail to comply with safety management. Compliance checks carried out at 164 voluntary aided and foundation schools and academies between November 2010 and June 2011 found that 28 were unable to produce and show inspectors asbestos management plans or neglected to provide adequate staff training.

Historically, the north of England has been an asbestos industry blackspot and the county of Lancashire, uniquely, has its own specialist asbestos inspection teams. While all “high risk” asbestos in Lancashire schools have been resolved, there are currently 500 schools with at least one indentified “low incidence” case, including 81 in Preston and 53 in South Ribble.

During the House of Commons debate, the All-Party Parliamentary group emphasised that “tens of thousands of schoolchildren and teachers” could be unaware of being exposed everyday to asbestos. It was also mentioned that HSE had previously said “ …it was important to stress that asbestos, which is properly managed, remains undamaged and is not disturbed is not a cause for concern”.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group Report on Occupational Health and Safety makes six recommendations:

(i)  A programme should be introduced by the Government for the phased removal of asbestos from all schools. Priority must be given to schools where asbestos is considered to be most dangerous or in a damaged condition.

(ii)  An asbestos training standard should be set, which should be mandatory and properly funded.

(iii)  The DfE and HSE are advised to jointly develop asbestos guidance, specifically for schools, and current standards reviewed.

(iv)  A policy of openness should be adopted. Parents, teachers and support staff should be annually updated on the measures being taken to manage the presence of asbestos in their schools.

(v)  The reinstatement of pro-active inspections to determine standards of asbestos management and aimed at reducing future costs.

(vi)  Data on the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools should be centrally collected to form an integral part of all data collected on the condition of schools, nationwide.