There can be few parents without an asbestos awareness of the potential long term health risk to their children of developing asbestosis disease if discovered at a local school. More than 30 years after the first asbestos ban was introduced, and nearly 20 years after all asbestos was banned, there are still regular reports of asbestos either incorrectly managed or discovered at a school property. Most recently, a former pupil who attended two Berkshire secondary schools in the late 1970s and early 80s, was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Fellow ex-pupils are being called upon to provide their account of the condition of the schools and whether there was exposure to asbestos fibre dust.

The sad news coincided with latest Freedom of Information request by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC), which revealed that at least 335 primary and secondary school teachers died of mesothelioma across the UK between 1980 and 2015. A further eight school secretaries, eight nursery nurses, 18 school midday assistants and 24 teaching assistants also lost their lives to the incurable cancer between 2003 and 2015.

In another recent case, a female teacher from Greater Merseyside was diagnosed with mesothelioma, just in her early 60s. She believed that exposure occurred while working at a high school, from the early 1980s until 2000. In a further almost identical case a female college lecturer lost her life to mesothelioma aged just 60 years old. Her statement, which was read out at the inquest describes working in “prefab” classrooms constructed from ‘dilapidated’ asbestos insulation board. Another female teacher who succumbed to mesothelioma, once again at the age of 60, remembers the asbestos dust on the surface of the walls when hanging up examples of her pupils’ work.

In November 2014, another Freedom of Information request made the shocking discovery that 19 teachers, on average, die every year from mesothelioma or related lung cancers caused by asbestos exposure.

Pupils and teachers at risk of inhaling asbestos dust

It’s an increasingly quoted JUAC statistic that as many as 8 in 10 around the country may still contain significant amounts of asbestos within the fabric of their buildings. Between 1946 and 1976, around 4.3 million tons of asbestos was imported into the UK for all types of industrial use including, the construction of around 14,000 school premises, using asbestos containing materials (ACMs), predominantly, white chrysotile asbestos insulating board (AIB).

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.

As early as 1967, the Department for Education reported very low levels of asbestos exposure were putting pupils and teachers at risk of inhaling asbestos dust. White chrysotile asbestos, considered a less toxic but still potentially dangerous material, was still in used in insulating board (AIB), surface coatings and cement products until finally banned in the late 1990s.

More than half a century later, the issue continues to exercise the government. Evidence previously submitted to the Education Select Committee predicted 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.”

In 2012, an All Party Parliamentary Group called for urgent action to deal with the continuing problem of asbestos in schools. Included in their recommendations was a long term programme for the phased removal of asbestos from all school premises. Then in 2015 the Department for Education published its long-awaited ‘asbestos in schools’ policy review, which appeared to do little more than acknowledge the existence of asbestos, mistakenly labelled ‘low-risk’, and simply recommending 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”.

Schools were still failing to properly manage asbestos

Between April 2013 and January 2014, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that nearly two in five of schools responsible for their own maintenance had “not trained their maintenance personnel.” In one survey of school teachers, more than four in ten (44 per cent) claimed that they had not been informed whether their school contains asbestos and nearly a half (46 per cent) did know that asbestos was present in their school. Of those who were aware of the presence of asbestos, more than one in three also claimed an incident had occurred, which may have led to exposure but fewer than two in ten had seen a copy of their school’s asbestos management plan.

In 2016 the JUAC – which includes representatives from Teachers Unions, ASCL, ATL, NASUWT and the NUT – drew attention again to how schools were still failing to properly manage asbestos.

In July 2017, the Parliamentary Asbestos in Schools Group, repeated that “there is an undeniable problem with asbestos in schools” and “the lives of staff, pupils and others are being put at risk”. The government was again urged to act with a “phased removal” alongside “centrally funded, mandatory audits in every school built before 1999.”

However, to date, it appears that little to no action has been taken by the government to address the continuing problem of asbestos in schools. All the while, the deaths of female teachers from asbestos exposure continue to be reported year after year.