It is always to be hoped that the advancement in asbestos awareness and our current understanding of the potential health risks of asbestosis diseases or mesothelioma would mean that the presence of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) would also be included in any national public building survey initiative, whether from government departments or other organisations. Even more so, when the buildings in question are schools, nurseries and colleges.

It is disappointing to note the glaring omission of ACMs in the recent government announcement that an extra £6 million would need to be spent on a survey of 8,000 schools to assess the condition of school buildings across England.

Accurate information on the condition of schools

To inform funding allocations for schools, between September 2012 and November 2013, the government carried out a Property Data Survey Programme (PDSP), which aimed to provide up-to-date and accurate information on the condition of schools, and continued assessing more than 800 academies until January 2014. Where prior information had been collected by local authorities, the survey is to continue until August 2014.

The absence of any mention of asbestos is of real concern following the recent revelations that nearly 70 per cent of schools in areas of the north of England, such as Sunderland, have been found to contain asbestos. In areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure has been estimated to be as high as 90 per cent. The Medical Research Council have also said that “it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings”.

However, 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 neglected to provide adequate staff training.

Inspections of asbestos management also aimed at reducing future costs

In February 2012, a debate was held in the House of Commons in response to a report by an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health, which made several recommendations, including the reinstatement of pro-active inspections to determine standards of asbestos management, also aimed at reducing future costs.

However, exactly one year later in February 2013, and following the proposed budget cuts, a DfE document was released, which proposed to put the policy work on a “care and maintenance” basis only and promising “ a thorough review into asbestos policy shortly…”

Yet the current announcement also seems to not make mention of Department of Education (DfE) statement in June 2013, in which it committed to review their current policy on asbestos management in schools, and take into account the information and conclusions of a two year study by the Committee on Carcinogenicity (CoC).

Vulnerability of children to exposure to asbestos

In 2011, the DfE had asked the CoC to consider the relative vulnerability of children to exposure to asbestos and in their report published in June 2013, the CoC stated:

• “Information provided by the DfE indicated that there were 16,818 primary schools, 3,268 secondary schools and 2,420 independent schools in England (DfE, 2012a) … and it is estimated that more than 75 per cent of these schools have some buildings which contain asbestos-containing products (ACPs).”

• “Of the estimated 2,360 secondary schools built between 1945 and 1975, approximately 47 per cent would have been ‘system built’ rather than traditionally built. In general, extensive use was made of sprayed coatings, ceiling panels, asbestos board and asbestos cement partitioning in system-built buildings in the 1960s.”

The CoC also said that, “ due to the increased life expectancy of children compared to adults, there is an increased lifetime risk of mesothelioma as a result of the long latency period of the disease… The lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is predicted to be about 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25, and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.”

A typical gestation period from initial exposure to the emergence of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms is between 15 to 50 years.

Data indicates that exposure to asbestos fibres can increase

According to the CoC Report, “ the data suggests that the levels of asbestos found in schools not containing asbestos in their construction are of the same order of magnitude as indoor asbestos levels in other buildings. When asbestos is present and is disturbed or damaged, the data indicates that exposure to asbestos fibres can increase.”

Not infrequently, reports of asbestos found in schools and colleges make the headlines. Following the discovery of ten times the accepted safe level of airborne asbestos particles in a boiler room at Cwmcarn High School, Caerphilly, Wales, in 2012, a national audit of asbestos levels in all schools was immediately ordered. The importance of maintaining an asbestos management and removal policy in British schools and colleges cannot be underestimated.

Between 2001 and 2005, at least 100 asbestos–related fatalities occurred as a result of exposure to asbestos in schools, affecting teachers, pupils, childcare assistants, school caretakers, secretaries, cooks and cleaners, and other school workers (Asbestos in Schools – AiS).

It is also predicted that between 200 and 300 people could die every year of mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure as children at school.