Asbestos in Schools  
Update 130 7 June 2013

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Government advisory committee on cancer conclude:
Children are more at risk from exposure to asbestos

At 10am on 7th June the Government’s advisory Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) publish their  final statement  that concludes children are more vulnerable to exposure to asbestos than adults - the younger the child the greater the risk.

Their conclusion should have a profound influence on Government policy towards asbestos in schools. The Minister, David Laws MP, confirmed at the Education Select committee hearing on 13th March that the Government will review its policy on asbestos in schools on receipt of the COC’s final report.(1)

The COC has been examining the evidence over the last two years and looked at two aspects. One was whether children are more vulnerable because they will live longer for the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma, to develop, and the second is whether they are more vulnerable because of their physical immaturity.

There was unanimous agreement that children are more at risk because they will live longer for mesothelioma to develop. It is estimated that the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma for a five year old child is about 5 times greater than an adult aged thirty.

Insufficient scientific research has been carried out to determine whether or not a child’s physical immaturity makes them more vulnerable, so the Committee were unable to come to a conclusion over this aspect. However a leading paediatrician warned that the juvenile lung is particularly susceptible to injury and that lung damage below the age of five would remain for life.

At the Education Select Committee hearing on Asbestos in Schools on 13th March 2013 Professor Julian Peto, a leading epidemiologist and a member of the COC, gave evidence that “It is reasonable to say that something in the order of 100 or 150 deaths per year from mesothelioma in women could in the future be due to asbestos levels in schools up to the 1960s and 1970s.” Professor Peto also considers that “It is a reasonable assumption that the same number of males as females are dying of mesothelioma caused by their asbestos exposure at school.” (2)

Therefore between 200 and 300 people could die a year of mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure as children at school. It is also a reasonable assumption that more than 3,000 mesothelioma deaths could occur because of asbestos exposure as a child at school. That is an appalling death toll from the simple act of attending school.

The estimates are based on the levels of exposure during the 1960s and 1970s, however most of the asbestos remains in place and so does the risk. All of it is now old and much is deteriorating as the school stock has been poorly maintained, consequently staff and pupils are still being exposed to asbestos, in some cases over a prolonged period of time. People will continue dying for decades to come while experts argue over the number of likely deaths and when the peak will occur.

Government policy has been tragically wrong so far, so we cannot afford to wait for another forty years to see if their present policy of leaving asbestos in place and managing it is working. For the sake of future generations we have to follow the precautionary principle by taking fundamental steps now to eradicate the asbestos risk in schools.

-  An internal review of Government policy will not be impartial -

In House of Commons Education Questions on 22nd April the Minister stated “We are keen to ensure that policy on asbestos is evidence-based.” (3) The COC report provides the evidence that children are considerably more at risk from asbestos exposure than adults. This should be the overriding factor in the Government’s review of asbestos policy for schools.

The Department for Education and the HSE intend that the review will be an internal one. However it was clear from the evidence given by the Minister and a senior director of HSE at the Select Committee hearing that on almost every aspect they were entirely satisfied with their present policies and procedures. An internal review would inevitably protect that position and would be neither impartial nor self critical. The Asbestos in Schools group (AiS) and the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) have therefore called for an independent review of Government policies.

The review must be an honest and open assessment of policies and must not be manipulated to justify present policies. Once the review is complete the Government must delay no longer, and must urgently implement measures that really do make our schools safe from the dangers of asbestos.

-Long-term strategic policy is needed -

AiS and JUAC will have an input to the review and call for the following:

  • An independent review of Government policy towards asbestos in schools.
  • A long term strategic policy for asbestos in schools. Short term policy has not solved the problem.
  • An audit to determine the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools. It will form a sound basis for long term financial forecasts. It will identify those schools most at risk.
  • A trial to perfect a system of widespread air sampling in schools. This will identify those schools and those classrooms where asbestos fibres are being released.
  • An environmental asbestos fibre level for schools. The level should be significantly lower than the present workplace control levels applied to the occupants of schools.
  • Training should be made mandatory for governors, headteachers, teachers and school staff and tailored to their role.
  • Proactive inspections should be re-introduced to determine which schools are not achieving acceptable standards so that measures can be taken to bring them up to the standards of the best.
  • A policy of openness should be adopted.
  • A long term strategic policy of progressive removal of asbestos should be adopted with the most dangerous asbestos prioritised for removal.  

The Chair of AiS, Annette Brooke OBE MP, said: “In light of the publication of this report, I call on the Government to urgently review their policies on asbestos in schools. The Department of Education must publish a strategic plan involving an audit of school buildings and an assessment of the risks. Over a period of time the plan must aim for the removal of the most dangerous asbestos materials. I agree with the Committee's conclusion that there is a lack of data on the airborne level of asbestos fibres in schools, and I support their recommendation that, as this is an important issue, new data should be generated."

The Chair of JUAC, Julie Winn, said: “The fact that children are more vulnerable to asbestos makes schools unique workplaces as they contain large numbers of children. The knowledge and science in terms of intrinsic susceptibility is incomplete. Children cannot control their exposure and they do not assume the risk voluntarily. Any policy approach that adopts anything other than a precautionary approach is socially and morally unacceptable. Where there is uncertainty policy should err on the side of health & safety and a precautionary approach should be taken. An independent review of government policy is long overdue.”

-Australia adopts strategic asbestos policy-

On 3rd June the Australian Federal Parliament passed legislation for the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Bill. This is precisely the fundamental strategic thinking that is urgently required in Britain. It underlines the Australian Government’s commitment to solve their asbestos problem once and for all. It sets a benchmark for our Government when they conduct the review of asbestos policy in schools.

The Bill establishes a national agency that will investigate the problem of asbestos in Australia. The Agency will then implement a strategic plan to eradicate asbestos and eliminate asbestos disease:

The National Strategic Plan means the plan that:

(a) is known as the National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Management and Awareness; and
(b) aims to prevent exposure to asbestos fibres in order to eliminate asbestos-related disease in Australia; and
(c) addresses the following priority areas:

(i) the systematic identification of material containing asbestos in the built environment and of asbestos dump sites;
(ii) systems, timelines and processes for the prioritised safe removal of material containing asbestos from public and commercial buildings and the safe disposal of such material;
(iii) measures to assist the residential sector to minimise the risks of asbestos, including raising awareness, education and mechanisms for identifying and classifying risks associated with asbestos;
(iv) improving education and information about asbestos;
(v) improving asbestos safety;
(vi) improving the sharing of information about asbestos and asbestos safety; and

(d) deals with any other relevant matters.

In introducing the Bill the Minister, Bill Shorten, said the government would work to “ultimately remove asbestos from the Australian built environment...... ”. and he agreed in principle that removal of asbestos from schools will be prioritised, adding “Obviously, exposure to children is particularly repugnant..."

Australia has adopted a strategic policy to eradicate asbestos and asbestos disease. The review of policy in Britain must seize this opportunity. We must adopt similar far reaching policies and take fundamental steps to eradicate the legacy of asbestos from schools to protect the most vulnerable people in our society – our children.

Michael Lees
6 June 2013

Note for editors: The COC final statement will be placed on the COC web-site at 10 am on 7th June. The statement is embargoed until then, however it is essentially the same as the 2nd draft statement which is on the COC site at this link.

Footnotes:
(1) Education Select Committee hearing on Asbestos in Schools 13th March 2013 Q53
(2) E-mail Professor Peto/Lees 1 May 2013
(3) Education questions Annette Brooke MP/ The Minister for Schools Mr David Laws MP T7. [152105] 22 April 2013

Contact:
Michael Lees: michael@lees1262.fsworld.co.uk Tel: 01409 241496 mob: 0791 0947362
Annette Brooke OBE MP: christine.payne@parliament.uk Tel 020 7219 8193
Julie Winn: Julie.Winn@switalskis.com Tel 01924 882000

 

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CONTENTS

1. Government committee: Children more at risk from asbestos
2. Government internal review promised but not impartial
3. Long term strategic plan needed.
4. Australia's new long term strategic plan as an example

Numbered references are at the foot of the page

 

 

 

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