More than 8 in ten of nearly 29,000 schools across the UK could contain asbestos materials, according to a recent report issued by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) – an increase from previous estimates of around 3 in four. The JUAC, formed in 2010, includes representatives from Teachers Unions, ASCL, ATL, NASUWT and the NUT.

Frequent and regular reports of asbestos dust found in school boiler rooms, classrooms and corridors continue to fuel heightened asbestos awareness and concern over the potential health risks to teachers, their young pupils and other school workers.

Fresh fears are voiced by teachers and parents every time asbestos is uncovered or disturbed during a renovation of school buildings. Local councils often issue a statement to play down the danger, especially if the fibre dust particles are so-called “low level” risk, white asbestos. White asbestos was allowed to continue being used in the construction industry for at least another ten to fifteen years after the most toxic brown and blue asbestos types were banned in the mid 1980s.

However, the teaching unions say they are not convinced that asbestos is being properly managed and repeatedly call for the complete removal of all asbestos from every school in the country as being the “only safe solution” to prevent potential exposure.

Key ways that schools fail to adequately manage asbestos

The JUAC report refers to specific schools, as typical examples to highlight the key ways that schools fail to adequately manage asbestos in their buildings.

Systematic failings include:

  • Surveys and risk assessments did not identify all the asbestos that could be disturbed by normal school activities and building deterioration.
  • Risk assessments were designed for adults, not for children who are more vulnerable to asbestos.
  • There is no requirement to inform parents of asbestos risks at their child’s school.
  • Schools do not retain asbestos records and exposure registers of pupils and school staff.
  • Contractors working with asbestos were managed ineffectively.

Early life exposure to asbestos

There is mounting evidence that early life exposure to asbestos – as potentially experienced by school pupils – may influence the later formation of asbestosis disease or the incurable mesothelioma cancer of the lung linings. Studies of 20 years of medical data of more than 2,000 males have indicated that the highest incidence of malignant pleural mesothelioma was among victims under the age of 20 when first exposed to asbestos.

Research suggests that there could also be greater susceptibility to other types of cancers, such as leukaemia, prostate and ovarian cancer in women, as well as an increase in deaths caused by strokes and heart disease.

Official Government policy has maintained that, “ … if asbestos is in good condition and not likely to be disturbed, it is safer to leave it in place and manage it than attempt to remove”.

However, it is the degree of fibre particle dust, which may be released through hidden and often unsealed parts of a building’s structure and fabric that may often be overlooked or when air samples are taken for analysis. As increasing failure to properly manage asbestos in schools continue the government is called upon to implement more robust action.

Government recommendations said to be waived

In 2012, an All-Party Parliamentary Group Report on Occupational Health and Safety stated that, “Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years” and made six recommendations:

(i) A programme should be introduced by the Government for the phased removal of asbestos from all schools. Priority must be given to schools where asbestos is considered to be most dangerous or in a damaged condition.

(ii) An asbestos training standard should be set, which should be mandatory and properly funded.

(iii) The DfE and HSE are advised to jointly develop asbestos guidance, specifically for schools, and current standards reviewed.

(iv) A policy of openness should be adopted. Parents, teachers and support staff should be annually updated on the measures being taken to manage the presence of asbestos in their schools.

(v) The reinstatement of pro-active inspections to determine standards of asbestos management and aimed at reducing future costs.

(vi) Data on the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools should be centrally collected to form an integral part of all data collected on the condition of schools, nationwide.

Years of “systematic failings”

The JUAC claim that according to information obtained under Freedom of Information, the government has “waived more stringent survey requirements” as a result of cost-cutting. The JUAC say this “…has enabled the culprits to evade responsibility for asbestos exposure…” and calls on the government to urgently act to address years of “systematic failings”.

Separate data, also obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the number of school teachers who died from asbestos-related mesothelioma has increased in the previous decade. Since 1980, a total of 291 school teachers fell victim to the deadly disease and over 60 per cent of the deaths (177) have occurred since 2001, alone (Health and Safety Executive).