Exposure to asbestos in school claims the lives of 19 teachers on average every year, according to a Freedom of Information Request made in Nov 2014. The statistical link between occupation and mesothelioma, a fatal and incurable cancer of the lung linings, is made commonly available by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and referred to by the Department for Education during their policy reviews.

Despite of the availability of the figures, recently it was stated during a Parliamentary debate in reply to a question concerning the number of teachers who fall victim to mesothelioma that “the Department for Education is not aware of data that links the number of cases of mesothelioma contracted to occupation.”

The apparent lack of precise knowledge may be due to the issue of exactly where victims of mesothelioma or other asbestosis diseases are exposed to the deadly fibre particles. Former employers have been known to state in their defence against a mesothelioma claim that because of the possibility of exposure in other workplaces there is no proof during the course of a former employee’s entire working life, that a particular exposure to asbestos at the employer’s premises was the direct cause of the victim’s eventual mesothelioma.

Increasingly clear evidence…

The statistical evidence for mesothlioma risk  to teachers, pupils and all other school workers caused by consistent asbestos exposure has become increasingly clear, even as the reports of schools evacuating their staff and pupils due to the discovery of asbestos continue to occupy local press headlines.

According to recent estimates, of the 28,950 schools across the UK, at least 75 per cent are likely to still contain significant amounts of asbestos. As many as 65 per cent of schools in Sunderland contained asbestos and in areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent. One report has also claimed that 93 per cent of schools in Edinburgh built before 2000 contain asbestos in the walls, ceilings or floors.

The existence of asbestos remaining in significant quantities in schools, colleges and nurseries has, of course, been increasingly brought to the urgent attention of the government. In 2012, a House of Commons ‘All Party Parliamentary Group’ report noted that, ‘Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years”, a figure that has now been revised up to nearly 160 fatalities.

In the same year, evidence given to the Education Select Committee estimated that, “in Britain between 200 and 300 people will die each year of mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure experienced as a child at school in the 1960 and 1970s. Over a twenty year period that means that between 4,000 and 6,000 former pupils could die.”

But so far, there appears to has been little in the way of action in response by the government to deal comprehensively with the existence of asbestos.

Survey and consultation…

In September 2012 the Department of Education (DfE) launched a property data survey programme (PDSP), to provide up-to-date and accurate information on the condition of school buildings, which was completed in 2013 but has yet to be published. Between 31st January and 31st March 2014, the DfE also ran a consultation in a review of its asbestos management policy in schools. According to the DfE policy review document, the results of the call for evidence and the Department’s response were to made available to the public by June 2014. However, the report findings have yet to be published.

Now, more voices are being added to the call for the report to be published as early as possible, including those of the Derbyshire Asbestos Support team who suggest that the delay in publishing may simply be due to the government seeking to avoid the costs of improving the management of asbestos in schools.

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 and show inspectors asbestos management plans or neglected to provide adequate staff training. In the most recent HSE inspection of 153 non-local authority schools, conducted between April 2013 and January 2014, it was found that more than four in ten failed to show “a comprehensive system in place to ensure that anyone who may disturb asbestos was told of its presence. Nearly two in five of schools responsible for their own maintenance had “not trained their maintenance personnel.”

Teacher victims continue to rise

According to the latest available mesothelioma statistics 2003 to 2012 for the Education Sector, the number of school teachers falling victim to mesothelioma continues to rise from 177 teacher deaths since 2001 to 291 who have died since 1980. 22 school teachers died in 2012, alone. Between 2003 and 2012, other school workers also lost their lives to the deadly disease, including 16 educational assistants, 8 school secretaries and 8 nursery nurses and assistants.

Clearly, government action must be put into place at the earliest opportunity. In 2013, the Medical Research Council suggested that “it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings”.