Asbestos in Schools
 
Update 123
17 Jan 2012


1.  Minister specifically excludes asbestos from audit of school buildings
The Government has specifically excluded asbestos from an audit of the cost of maintaining, refurbishing or replacing school buildings although asbestos potentially causes the greatest risk to the occupants and can be the greatest cost in maintaining or refurbishing a school.  The audit (page 8 of link) will gather information on the cost of “storage tanks and equipment, gas distribution, ventilation, air conditioning, fire alarms, intruder alarms, toilet fittings and plumbing, lifts and hoists, external and internal decoration...etc” and assessments will also be made of the risks they pose. It is therefore illogical, financially irresponsible and dangerous to exclude asbestos. (Follow link to AiS response to consultation)

An internal Department for Education e-mail confirms that the reason asbestos is excluded is because of the financial implications. The e-mail states: “There will be pressure for the lobby for our new school buildings survey programme to look at asbestos, but it cannot do so given the cost implications...”

2.  Minister: Deaths and Secret Cost Benefit Analysis
Members of the Asbestos in Schools group (AiS) had two meeting with Nick Gibb MP when he was in Opposition. The basic principle of risk management was discussed - which is to assess the scale of the problem and the risks so that priorities can be set and sound financial forecasts made. AiS informed him that successive governments had refused to undertake an audit of the extent of asbestos in schools or the risks it poses because of a fear that if parents knew they would “panic” and demand the removal of all asbestos from schools, which would be exceedingly expensive. He stated “one cannot sweep the problem under the carpet... one cannot shut one’s eyes to the problem.”

He was informed that 228 teachers had died of mesothelioma and that, based on US estimates, more than 2,000 people could subsequently die from their asbestos exposures experienced as children in UK schools, but because of the long latency they would die in their middle age.  He was informed that the cost of solving the problem would be considerable. He responded by saying “You are telling me that I will have to cripple the Education budget to save the lives of a few thousand middle aged people.” His statement brutally illustrates that a proper cost benefit analysis must be carried out to identify the way forward. That must clearly be based on a proper assessment of the scale of the problem and the risks. The assessments and the decision making should be open and transparent as the conclusions will affect teachers, support staff and children’s exposure to asbestos fibres and their risk of dying from such exposure.

Unfortunately now that Nick Gibb is the Minister of State for Schools he is not doing what he promised. He has specifically excluded asbestos from the audit of school buildings. In addition, although he has authorised an assessment of the risks to children, he appears to be attempting to influence the decision making process. For instance papers submitted by Government Departments and agencies to the Government’s scientific and medical committees are unbalanced and misleading.

It also looks as if he has carried out a cost benefit analysis in secret, without proper evidence, and has decided that it is potentially too expensive to deal with the problem of asbestos in schools just to save "the lives of a few thousand middle aged people" . He appears to be attempting to conceal that brutal logic.

3.  Government agencies provide misleading data to scientific and medical committees
Although the Government’s advisory committee on science, WATCH, spent almost four years discussing the risks of low level exposure to asbestos they did not assess the risks to children. They should have as, at the first meeting, a committee member stressed the importance of childhood asbestos exposure and the significantly greater risk it poses. Because of this failure AiS asked the Prime Minister, the Department for Education and the HSE to task them. They did not and would not examine it.

In order to put the risks to the occupants of buildings containing asbestos into context WATCH  (para 3.29 and 3.30 asked HSE/HSL to summarise the knowledge it has on airborne levels of asbestos in buildings”  para 4.49(iv)

The summary HSE provided WATCH is flawed, unbalanced and misleading. It excludes relevant material and contains irrelevant material. For example:

  • The only two levels included in the summary of UK buildings were exceptionally low and unrepresentative of tests that had shown serious problems of asbestos fibre release in schools.
  • One level had been obtained from offices in an office block, where the activity, condition and cleanliness were not representative of a typical school.
  • The other series of tests were carried out in seven schools to test the effectiveness of work that had specifically been carried out to prevent the release of asbestos fibres from columns, walls and ceilings into classrooms.
  • The HSE summary is profoundly misleading as it excludes all the data that had precipitated the tests and the remedial action.
  • The data that is excluded is from 1987 when it was discovered that dangerous levels of asbestos fibres can be emitted into classrooms of potentially thousands of schools from the simple action of slamming a door or hitting a wall. In some schools it is probable that this had been happening since they were built in the 1960’s.
  • The problem was never dealt with so that the occupants continued to be exposed to asbestos.
  • The summary also excludes all the data from 2006 when it was rediscovered that slamming doors hitting classroom walls and columns and sitting on window sills can release dangerous levels of asbestos fibres.
  •  The summary also excludes the data that shows the remedial action in some schools failed to prevent the release of asbestos fibres.
  • The summary gives exceptionally low asbestos fibre readings for the “Personal sampling of school children.” It does not, however, say that this reading was inevitable because “material containing asbestos was not found in any of the buildings.”  It is unethical and deceptive not to make it clear that the data is entirely irrelevant to children’s contamination in school buildings that do contain asbestos.
  • Having included irrelevant data the summary excludes relevant data of dangerous levels of asbestos fibres emitted from ducted warm air heaters commonly used in thousands of UK classrooms.  
  • It excludes data that shows that taking books out of a classroom stationary cupboard or displaying the children’s work with drawing pins can release cumulatively dangerous levels of asbestos fibres that are inhaled by the school staff and school children.

4.  Department of Health Committee: Increased risk to children from asbestos exposure.  
The same flawed HSE paper was provided to the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) as a basis for their assessment of the relative vulnerability of children to asbestos. 

As WATCH had not been tasked to assess the risk to children from asbestos, AiS proposed that the Department of Health (DoH) should. Consequently the first of at least two meetings of the DoH Committee on Carcinogenicity took place on 12th January 2012 to assess “the relative vulnerability of children to asbestos.” There was agreement that children are significantly more vulnerable to the dangers of asbestos because they will live longer for mesothelioma to develop.  

Worryingly it was also highlighted that scientists do not know whether children’s susceptibility to asbestos is increased because of their physical immaturity. The reason is that the subject has not been properly studied. This lack of scientific research seems an unforgivable lapse given the prevalence of asbestos in most British schools and many homes, and the fact that forty five years ago the Department for Education were specifically warned of the particular increased risk to children from asbestos.

HSE attended as expert advisors and briefed the members of the COC using their misleading summary of fibre levels. It was apparent that the committee were left with the incorrect impression that asbestos fibre levels in schools are exceptionally low – despite authoritative evidence showing that in many schools the opposite is true.

The conclusions of the Committee on Carcinogenicity will be used as a basis for future decisions and Government policy that directly affects the number of school teachers, support staff and children who will be exposed to asbestos fibres.  Those decisions have to be based on the best evidence, but Government Departments and agencies, including  HSE, are attempting to influence decisions by putting “spin” on scientific data.  That is unethical. A formal complaint has been submitted to the Minister.

(Follow this link to the Asbestos in Schools submission to the Committee on Carcinogenicity that examines the extent of asbestos in schools and the risks to staff and pupils now.

Michael Lees

 

 

 

 
 
 
CONTENTS
1. Minister excludes asbestos from audit of school buildings.
2. Minister. Deaths and secret cost benefit analysis.
3.  Government Agencies provide misleading data to scientific and medical committees.
4. Department of Health Committee: increased risk to children from asbestos exposure.