Acute concern and raised asbestos awareness for the safety of 900 pupils after the recent discovery of airborne asbestos particles in a boiler room at Cwmcarn High School, Caerphilly, Wales, have been more than justified.

Following the immediate closure of the buildings for asbestos analyses, it was found that not only was the asbestos level ten times over accepted levels but also the presence of asbestos found in roof cavities was likely to have been circulated around the entire premises by the school heating system.

The report also indicated that draught disturbance to ceiling tiles, electrical repairs and even the movement of classroom tables and chairs by pupils may were also possible causes of asbestos board damage.

Following the call for an immediate national audit of asbestos levels in all schools by Education Minister Leighton Andrews, the Government was also urged to issue an official asbestos guide for school authority heads. The document would give clear instruction for devising an asbestos control and management plan to ensure total safety for pupils and staff. The asbestos in schools guide has now been published and a checklist is available here to download from the HSE website.

Much misunderstanding still seems to exist over the level of harm a potential exposure to asbestos can cause. While the most dangerous asbestos types were banned in the mid 1980s, so-called ‘low-risk’ white asbestos continued to be used in the building industry but was also finally banned in 1999.

According to both the medical and legal view, white asbestos is classified as a Class 1 carcinogen. Whenever white asbestos is uncovered, it is generally considered safer to leave undisturbed and fully encapsulated than attempt to remove. However a full asbestos management plan with information training must be implemented.

The Department of Education state that, “Headteachers, school governors, and other members of the school management team all need to know who is responsible for asbestos management procedures and documentation, and for ensuring that this is always followed.”

In addition, “School management teams need to see that maintenance, repair work and improvements on school buildings are carried out safely.” This will involve staff and visitors knowing what precautions to follow and which staff are delegated to be responsible for specific health and safety functions. Appropriate training must be given and clear lines of accountability established.

Consequently, whenever any work is carried out on school premises, referral to asbestos documentation must be made and any work likely to affect asbestos-containing materials must only be undertaken by a qualified person.

According to the Asbestos in Schools report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health, over 75 per cent of Britain’s state schools contain asbestos. In the last decade alone, more than 140 school teachers have died from the fatal incurable mesothelioma cancer and it has been estimated that in the UK it is likely that more than 100 people could suffer mesothelioma or asbestosis disease as a result of asbestos exposure from when they attended school.