Last week’s discovery of asbestos in Cwmcarn High School, Caerphilly, Wales, has once again raised the issues of asbestos awareness, the potential health risks from exposure and making sure there is proper management of the deadly fibres.

As is often the case, the presence of the mineral at the school, which teaches 900 pupils, only came to light when a company survey was conducted separately in a boiler room, which found asbestos in airborne particles.

Following the temporary closure of the school, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams, called on the Welsh government to conduct a national audit of asbestos in schools, and Education Minister Leighton Andrews, asked for reports on asbestos levels to be delivered in seven days. In addition, an ‘asbestos register’, together with a management plan to minimise the risk to pupils and staff, has been requested.

Many school buildings throughout England and Wales are known to contain asbestos fibres used in insulation building materials such as cement, wall board, textured and spray coatings, boiler linings, pipe lagging, roofing sheets, ceiling and floor tiling.

In the period following the end of WW2, an extensive rebuilding programme began, including some 14,000 school premises, which made use of asbestos as a cheap insulating material. It was not until the mid 1980s when the most toxic blue and brown asbestos types were banned, although, white asbestos continued to be used for at least another ten years.

Despite the clinical view that all asbestos is a potential health danger, white asbestos is considered low risk. When the material is discovered, a decision is usually made to contain by encapsulation and in addition, a stringent management and monitoring plan is put into place in accordance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations.

White asbestos can very often be found in a fragile condition and any attempt to handle will cause fibre dust to be released into the air, which is easily inhaled. In some instances, as with the school boiler room, disintegrated asbestos particles were already airborne.

Once fibres are inhaled, they permanently embed in the linings of the lungs, which over a period of between 15 to 50 years can cause asbestosis disease or the incurable mesothelioma cancer. However, the first signs of mesothelioma or other asbestosis symptoms tend to only appear at an advanced stage and life expectancy from a confirmed diagnosis is usually between 4 to 12 months.

Over a twenty-five year period, from 1980 to 2005, mesothelioma cancer has claimed a total of 272 lives from both school teachers and college lecturers as well as causing the deaths of school caretakers, cooks, cleaners and school secretaries.

A spokesman for the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has stated they are looking into whether there are “grounds for a full investigation” into the issue of asbestos at Cwmcarn High School.

According to surveys undertaken by the HSE, there are still hundreds of schools with asbestos-containing materials that fail to comply with safety management procedures. 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 any asbestos management plans or neglected to provide adequate staff training.