How safe are pupils and teachers from the risk of exposure to asbestos in their school? Whenever the question is raised, a local authority spokesman is almost certain to immediately issue a reassurance that no instances of exposure have been reported, adding that any asbestos is ‘low risk’ and best left in place, undisturbed and managed. But does their asbestos awareness of the likely dangers go far enough?

The results of a recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request sent to one Liverpool Borough Council found that more than 50 schools contained asbestos materials. The council response, as outlined above, follows a pattern echoed around the country over the last twenty years, at least.

One FOI request from as recently as November 2014 made the shocking discovery that 19 teachers, on average, died from mesothelioma or related lung cancers caused by asbestos exposure every year.

A spokesman for Liverpool’s Halton Borough Council pointed out that annual asbestos surveys are required to be carried out, and as a result, asbestos was removed from 20 schools in Runcorn and Widnes in the last five years, in accordance with the Control Of Asbestos Regulations 2012.

Asbestos dust emerging through the classroom walls

While the actions taken are to be welcomed, the certainties expressed over the likelihood of exposure are always undermined whenever there are reports of schools around the UK where asbestos dust has been found in corridors, window sills or boiler rooms. Asbestos dust has even been reported emerging through the classroom walls when drawing pins are attached or doors slammed shut. In one recent report issued by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC), comprising members of four Teachers Unions, it was stated that asbestos surveys and risk assessments did not identify all the asbestos that could be disturbed by normal school activities and building deterioration.

Between 1945 and 1975, nearly a half of the 13,000 schools built in England and Wales – many of which are still in existence- were constructed using asbestos infill in ceilings, partition walls, heaters, water tanks, pipes and window surrounds.

The roll call of schools around the country found to contain asbestos continues to make frequent and regular headlines. In the last weeks of 2016, a list was published showing just over 260 academies, independent and local authority schools were found to contain asbestos in Somerset. Three days into 2017, it was reported that more than nine in ten of local authority schools in the Bath area contained asbestos, followed by Bristol and Dorset.

Recent estimates suggest that of the 28,950 schools across the UK, as many as 8 in 10 could still contain significant amounts of asbestos. In 2015, a detailed analysis of local authority schools reported that there could be as much as 87 per cent of asbestos in English schools, based on data provided. However, it is the North of England, Scotland and Wales – the historical heartlands of industrial asbestos use – that flag up some of highest numbers for asbestos-containing schools.

Two thirds of Liverpool schools contain asbestos

In Liverpool, a 2010 survey found nearly 70 of 102 – or two thirds of local authority schools reported the presence of asbestos, the same proportion (65 per cent) of schools in Sunderland. and more than 200 schools in Derbyshire contained asbestos. In Greater Manchester alone, at least 1,600 of the region’s local authority buildings – including 700 schools – still contain asbestos materials. In other areas of Manchester, 90 per cent of schools are estimated to contain asbestos.

The picture in Scotland is equally grim. Of just under 1,600 schools, nearly 80 per cent (1,260) contained asbestos. Angus showed the highest figure at 97 per cent of schools, and 93 per cent of schools in Edinburgh built before 2000. In Wales, 88 per cent of just over 1,740 schools contained asbestos with Cardiff and Carmarthenshire showing the highest proportion at around 95 per cent of schools.

The question of historical exposure risk to teachers, pupils and other school workers has been clearly recognised and debated regularly in the House of Commons.

Twice the number of teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980

In 2014, an All Party Parliamentary Group issued an updated proposal from two years earlier – which noted at the time that “over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years”. One year earlier, 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”.

In 2012, the number of school teachers who died from mesothelioma had reached 22, up from 16 in 2011. The increase is also twice 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.

The difficulty for local authorities appears be over the current and ongoing exposure risk. 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,

As long as asbestos materials remain in schools, it cannot be conclusively stated that there is not a level of exposure risk, which may develop into an asbestos-related disease up to 30 or 40 years later.