The Silent Killer in SchoolsGovernment Under Fire for Failing to Act on Lethal Asbestos
An investigation by Byline Times has uncovered shocking new figures on the presence of the dangerous mineral in places of education
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Four out of five schools in England and Wales contain asbestos and the numbers of teaching staff dying from exposure continues to increase, an investigation by Byline Times can reveal.
The investigation – part of a nine-country European project, The Lethal Legacy, into the risks of asbestos – comes at a time when the asbestos surveying and testing industry is raising concerns about damaged asbestos hidden in buildings, including in many schools.
Byline Times submitted Freedom of Information requests to the Department for Education, which revealed that, of English schools which had carried out surveys for the so-called Asbestos Management Assurance Process in 2021, 80.7% of those stated “that asbestos was present on their estate”.
This ratio has scarcely changed since the last asbestos data collection survey in 2016 by the DfE, when between 80-85% of schools in England had asbestos.
Byline Times also requested official correspondence about asbestos, including questions about funding to remove it and the level of damaged asbestos across schools, but the department refused to release any correspondence, despite repeated attempts to reduce the scope of the FOI request to meet its conditions for release.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We take the safety of children and those who work with them incredibly seriously – which is why we expect all local authorities, governing bodies and academy trusts to have robust plans in place to manage asbestos in school buildings effectively, in line with their legal duties.
“Since 2015, we have allocated £13 billion to those responsible for school buildings for essential maintenance and improvements, including the removal of asbestos when it is the safest course of action. We are also rebuilding 500 school buildings over the next decade, bringing the parts of the school estate in the worst condition up to modern, green standards.”
But teaching unions, campaigners and experts are warning that the current policy of leaving asbestos in situ in schools, in the hopes that this is safer than removing it, is failing teaching staff and children. This is because the UK has one of the highest risks of the asbestos-related condition mesothelioma in the world, due to extensive use of asbestos before the 2000 UK ban came into place.
Epidemiologist Professor Julian Peto estimates that up to 300 former pupils may die each year from mesothelioma because they were exposed in schools.
Leading industry bodies – the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy (ATaC) and the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants (NORAC) – launched a review of UK asbestos management in a report in Parliament last November. It found that, of the 128,761 buildings which asbestos experts examined over a six-month period, 78% had asbestos, and 71% of the asbestos items were recorded as being damaged to some extent.
“There is currently a high proportion of asbestos materials in UK buildings that could present a potential risk to public health,” the report concluded.
Asbestos is most dangerous when it is damaged, as fibres of the lethal mineral can come loose and airborne, which is the mechanism whereby most people are thought to develop asbestos-related diseases.
Campaigning groups like Airtight on Asbestos – funded by former asbestos consultant Charles Pickles – are particularly concerned about asbestos in schools, as the mineral is embedded in a large proportion of schools, called system-built or CLASP schools, of which it is thought to be around 6,000 in the UK. It is hidden from view and therefore more difficult to test to see how badly it is damaged. It is also thought that children are more vulnerable to harm from asbestos exposure than adults.
The teaching unions, as reported this month, are considering working with Prof Peto to look at the rate of mesothelioma deaths in female teachers, which is statistically significant for those born between 1955 and 1974.
This comes hard on the heels of the Government also announcing new funding for a move towards net zero and for schools to be renovated to make them more energy efficient. But asbestos experts say that any measure, such as energy saving, which sends in unqualified and unprotected construction workers to disturb buildings without knowing the risk of asbestos, could make a bad situation worse.
Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee published a report on the Health and Safety Executive’s approach to asbestos management last April, recommending that the Government set a 40-year deadline for removing asbestos, “focusing on removing the highest risk asbestos first, and the early removal from the highest risk settings, including schools.”
The Government refused to implement this recommendation, but is providing funding for contractors to start building works in schools, without necessarily removing asbestos first.
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John Richards, a committee member of ATaC, who co-authored the report on asbestos management in the UK, told Byline Times: “People are now exposed to a low level of the fibre over a long period of time, but there is no research being done on the risks of low level exposure over prolonged periods of time.
“These people are being accidentally and incidentally exposed, including pupils in schools, teachers, nurses and doctors. They do not know that they are working with around asbestos, they do not know they are being exposed.”
Dr Gill Reed, technical advisor to the Joint Union Asbestos Committee – a non-party political group raising awareness of asbestos in schools and the author of a 2021 report into asbestos in school buildings – said: “Successive governments have allowed the construction of buildings using the known carcinogen – asbestos – and failed to heed concerns that occupants of buildings, particularly children would be and are at risk. They have then failed to fund the renovation or replacement of deteriorating school buildings and asbestos removal adequately.”
In response to the Government’s decision to agree more funding for climate change renovation in schools, she asked: “Will the Government continue to ignore the risk from disturbing school asbestos as schools now seek to renovate their schools in order to mitigate against the impact of climate change?”
The cross-border investigation ‘Asbestos: The Lethal Legacy’ on asbestos in buildings is led by Investigative Reporting Denmark, edited by Katharine Quarmby, and made in collaboration with journalists from Knack in Belgium, Tygodnik Powszechny and Reporters’ Foundation in Poland, Ostro in Croatia and Slovenia, IRPI in Italy, De Groene Amsterdammer in The Netherlands, Grupo Merca2 in Spain, Al Jazeera in the UK and TV2 Nord in Denmark. The investigation is supported by Journalismfund.eu