MPs have launched an inquiry into the dangers of asbestos in British schools and hospitals, following warnings from campaign groups that not enough is being done.
Thousands of UK schools are thought to be affected. In particular, ‘CLASP’ schools, which were mostly built between the 1950s and 1970s and contained high levels of asbestos. There are around 3,000 of these schools still in use in the UK.
371 teacher deaths since 2001
According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, 371 teachers died from mesothelioma caused by asbestos between 2001 and 2020. 139 of these were primary and nursery school teachers and 110 were secondary school teachers. These numbers are shocking enough, but campaigners think the true number is much higher.
Research by the campaign group Airtight on Asbestos found that primary school teachers are five times more likely to die from asbestos-related conditions than their peers.
Solicitors firms and victim support groups are seeing an increase in teachers and nurses coming to them for support. Where previously, workers who were directly exposed to asbestos through construction work or similar occupations were diagnosed with mesothelioma, now more low level exposure cases are coming forward. More women are being diagnosed with the disease than ever before.
Charles Pickles from Airtight on Asbestos said:
“Female primary school teachers now have one of the highest prevalences of mesothelioma as an occupational group.
“This is alarming, because female primary school teachers never worked with asbestos. They have merely worked in buildings containing asbestos.”
Asbestos – the silent killer
While the use of asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999, there are around six million tonnes of asbestos remaining in public buildings across the UK. It’s thought that 80 percent of schools in the UK have asbestos, potentially affecting millions of teachers and pupils.
Asbestos is known as a ‘silent killer’ as symptoms often don’t arise for many years and by then it’s too late to do anything. 2,500 people die each year from mesothelioma caused by asbestos.
Issues arise when asbestos fibres are inhaled. This happens when asbestos is disturbed in any way. Something as minor as slamming a door can do this. Fibres are released into the air and, when inhaled, irritate the lung tissue, causing scarring and malignant tumours.
As the UK’s asbestos becomes more and more dilapidated, the risk of exposure grows.
What’s being done?
The current policy is to manage asbestos, rather than remove it.
Under the UK’s existing system, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) assigns a designated ‘duty holder’ to public buildings, whose responsibility is the management of asbestos. However, in practice this policy is ineffective, either due to a lack of awareness or understanding. Many duty holders don’t know where asbestos is located in public buildings, nor when or if it has been disturbed and what action to take.
Airtight on Asbestos recommends the following actions to help stop …
- Routine air monitoring in schools to identify which environments are unsafe;
- Introducing a safe environmental limit for airborne asbestos fibres;
- Replacing CLASP and other outdated school buildings
Many other countries already do this and more. Pickles said:
“We have one of the worst asbestos legacies in the world, and even today exposure to the substance cuts short the lives of 200 to 300 school children each year.”
The committee will hear evidence from different sources over the coming months and their report will be released in 2022.