In 2014 there should be no shadow of doubt or the slightest confusion over whether exposure to ‘unmanaged’ asbestos is still a deadly health risk. While it may be discovered intact within the fabric of a building, any disturbance of the material is likely to release dust particles containing invisible fibres into the atmosphere and are easily inhaled.

In recent years, asbestos awareness and the growing realisation of the increasing number of public buildings, such as schools, colleges and hospitals found to contain the hazardous materials continue to make the headlines, often accompanied by controversy over controlled regulatory disposal or safe management procedures.

Of increasing concern is the small but consistent number of those men and women still at the prime of life who are being diagnosed with asbestosis disease or the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer. In one recent case, a female school teacher died of mesothelioma in a Southampton hospital aged just sixty three, just two years after taking retirement. According to a statement, the deceased had said she had “actually seen asbestos dust” released into the air when she pinned work onto the classroom walls.

Integral building material

It can be simply overlooked that asbestos fibres were still an integral part of the manufacture of insulation building materials, such as wallboard, infill, pipe lagging and cement roof products used in construction or refurbishment up until the mid-1980s when the most toxic brown and blue asbestos types were banned. However, white asbestos was still allowed to be used for at least another ten years or more and was only banned in 1999.

The recent widespread use of asbestos means that it is not only those men and women who were working in industries using asbestos fibres in the peak period of the 1950s and 60s. Succeeding generations born in the same period were also exposed when working during the 1970s and 80s in buildings where asbestos was a constituent insulation and fireproofing material. Included would also be pupils as well as teachers in nurseries, schools and colleges.

Between 1945 and 1975, around 6,000 ( just over 45 per cent) of the 13,000 schools built in England and Wales were system / modular built using building materials made from asbestos fibres. Quantities of asbestos fibres would be released into the rooms, the ceiling, wall and column voids when interior walls and cladding on structural columns were struck or disturbed. Fibres are also released when doors and windows are being opened or closed. Where window frames have been fastened to column casings, a strong wind can cause a slight movement and the release of asbestos dust.

Significant amounts of asbestos “in all schools”

Thirty years after the first bans were introduced, it is estimated that nearly three quarters of all schools across Britain are likely to still contain significant amounts of asbestos, and in specific areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent. In the North East of England, it was recently revealed that as many as 65 per cent of schools in Sunderland contain asbestos.

Between November 2010 and June 2011, compliance checks conducted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that around 17 per cent of those schools surveyed were unable to produce and show inspectors asbestos management plans or had neglected to provide adequate staff training.

In March 2013, the continuing problem of “Asbestos In Schools”, which had led to “a failure by schools to manage their asbestos properly” was discussed in parliament. A Government advisory Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) found that “children are more vulnerable than adults” from exposure to asbestos at the conclusion of a two-year study.

Call for “urgent action”

According to the COC, “It is reasonable to say that something in the order of 100 or 150 deaths per year from mesothelioma in women could in the future be due to asbestos levels in schools up to the 1960s and 1970s” and “it is reasonable to assume that the same number of males as females are dying of mesothelioma caused by their asbestos exposure at school.”

Between 2001 and 2005, at least 100 asbestos–related fatalities affected all school occupants from teachers and pupils to childcare assistants, school caretakers, secretaries, cooks and cleaners, etc.

Following the report findings, the Asbestos in Schools Group (AiS) and the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) repeated their call for an independent and “honest” review of government policies – and an end to their delay in carrying out urgent action to rid schools permanently of asbestos.