Parents, teachers, mesothelioma support groups and asbestosis lawyers will be disappointed to hear that the Wales Education Minister has dismissed the call for an asbestos database, which would provide parents with vital information on which schools contain the hazardous substance, saying it “would not help public safety”.

Two years ago, more than more than 400 people signed a petition calling on the Welsh Government to create a national public database. Their concern is to minimise the potential risk by raising asbestos awareness to possible exposure among some of the 1,666 schools across Wales.

Instead, Education Minister Huw Lewis says that a database would be a “tremendous bureaucratic burden to local authorities” as “it’s not just schools that contain asbestos”. The MP for Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney states that “right across the public and domestic realm we spent 30 years building this stuff into our buildings… this stuff is all around us all the time”.

“Not aware of concerns from parents and staff”

Mr Lewis also told the database petition committee that aside from the petition itself he was “not aware of any real concerns from parents and staff about asbestos in schools”. Yet in 2012, there was widespread news coverage of the discovery of ten times the accepted safe level of airborne asbestos particles in a boiler room at Cwmcarn High School, Caerphilly.

The then Wales Education Minister, Leighton Andrews sought assurances from Welsh councils over the condition of asbestos in their area schools and Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams called for a national asbestos audit. A year later, 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”.

Asbestos in schools has a long history

The issue of dealing with the presence of asbestos in schools has a long history. More than four in ten schools built or refurbished in England and Wales up to the late 1970s at least used insulating materials made from asbestos fibres. Forty years on and recent estimates suggest that more than three quarters of nearly 29,000 schools across the UK are likely to still contain significant quantities of asbestos.

The north of England is a known asbestos industry blackspot. Two thirds of schools in Sunderland are thought to contain asbestos and figures released by Lancashire Council, show that across the entire region more 570 of the county’s 617 schools contain asbestos, which require its own specialist asbestos inspection teams. In areas of Manchester and Wales, it has been estimated that up to 90 per cent of schools contain hazardous asbestos materials. One report also claims that 93 per cent of schools in Edinburgh built before 2000 contain asbestos in the walls, ceilings or floors.

The call for a permanent solution to rid Britain’s schools of the potential health risks of asbestos has also led to a number of previous government reports.

Report failed to show any in-depth understanding

The most recent ‘asbestos in schools’ policy review, released in March 2015, was considered to be a deep disappointment, which did little more than acknowledge the existence of asbestos as a so-called ‘low-risk’ presence in schools but failed to show any in-depth understanding into the extent of the problem. Far from considering the total removal of asbestos, the review simply recommended guidance and training for school staff and highlighted the need for ‘transparency and accountability of school duty holders.’

In 2012, a House of Commons ‘All Party Parliamentary Group’ reported, ‘Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years”. In the meanwhile, the tragic toll on teachers, former pupils and other school workers looks set to continue year after year.

Mesothelioma among school teachers has actually increased

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. The latest available statistics for the Education Sector finds that death from mesothelioma among school teachers has actually increased since 2001.

Data obtained from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that as recently as 2012 the number of school teachers who died from mesothelioma had reached 22, up from 16 in 2011. The increase is also double the figure of 3 deaths in 1980, and since then a total of 291 school teachers have fallen victim to the deadly disease. Over 60 per cent of the deaths (177) have occurred since 2001, alone.

As recently as 2012, mesothelioma claimed the lives of two school secretaries and four teaching assistants. 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.”