We appear to be suddenly in the midst of a wave of discovering asbestos hidden in schools and other council premises.

Following the recent closure of Cwmcarn High School, Caerphilly, after airborne asbestos particles were found in a boiler room, “emergency” asbestos surveys are now to be implemented in all schools across Wales. The action has been taken also in response to the call by Education Minister Leighton Andrews for reports on asbestos levels to be delivered after seven days.

Prior to this action, the discovery of asbestos, and a similar concern over a council’s management apparent lack of asbestos awareness of the potentially dangerous material in several buildings in their borough, was raised when the deadly fibres were first found ahead of a planned school relocation.

As part of a scheme to help ease the shortage of pupil places in the borough, three classes and 18 staff from a Church of England Primary School in Walthamstow, East London, were due to be the first to move to another former School site in September 2012. The discovery of asbestos has now halted the planned move.

Questions are now being raised over the apparent failure by Waltham Forest council to know that there was asbestos present prior to the school move. A routine management survey to uncover and identify the possible presence of asbestos is required under the Control of Asbestos Regulations.

However, this is not the council’s first encounter with the deadly mineral.

Currently, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are conducting an investigation into a quantity of asbestos uncovered at Waltham Forest Town Hall, which now appears to exceed initial assumed levels. Previously, it had been thought that asbestos was confined to a basement storage area but it is now found to be present in at least three other ground floor locations with the possibility of finding more asbestos elsewhere in the building.

The use of asbestos as a low-cost insulation and fire retardant in the construction and renovation of both private residential and public service building continued beyond the banning of the white chrysotile type in the mid 1980s. Although considered ‘low risk’, it is still safer for mandatory arrangements to be enforced for its control and strict management rather than an attempt to remove.

Airborne asbestos fibres are easily inhaled, which can remain permanently within the ling linings (pleura) or spread to other body organs such as the stomach linings (peritoneum). Asbestosis symptoms can take up to 50 years before becoming apparent, by which time, a disease such as the fatal incurable mesothelioma cancer is likely to have spread to an advanced stage. Often life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is between 4 to 18 months.

According to the HSE there could be around four million properties still containing hidden asbestos material and some 1.8 million people, from builders and teachers to flat owners and housing estate tenants, can be exposed to asbestos every year in the UK.