Asbestos in Schools  
Update 131 23 November 2013

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1. WWII gas masks should never be worn – Warning to schools.

Most WWII gas masks contain asbestos and tests have shown that potentially dangerous levels of asbestos fibres can be inhaled when they are either handled or worn. The carrying bags can be heavily contaminated and neither should they be handled.

WWII is on the national curriculum at Key stage 2, and it is known that schools have used these gas masks in lessons about the war. The Department for Education (DfE) in England has now issued a warning to all schools not to wear or handle the masks. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has finally advised the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales of the dangers and it is anticipated that they will issue a similar warning.

Tests carried out in 2002 showed that significant levels of crocidolite fibres (blue asbestos) could be inhaled from WWII military masks and carrying bags. Civilian masks normally contain chrysotile (white asbestos) although some contain crocidolite. HSE were informed. In 2008 HSE Northern Ireland informed all their schools of the dangers. In July 2013 tests were carried out on a mask being used in a primary school in England which confirmed the earlier results. The Asbestos in Schools Group (AiS) therefore asked the Department of Education and HSE to issue an urgent warning to all schools in the remainder of the country and to the general public.  AiS and the Joint Union Asbestos Group (JUAC) issued their own warning.

It is illegal to sell or post the masks if they contain asbestos. Despite this they are regularly traded on the web and posted to customers with over one thousand three hundred being traded since September. Questions have been asked in Parliament, Trading Standards and HSE are investigating.  

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2. Meeting with the Schools Minister

This week Michael Lees accompanied a nursery school teacher, who is suffering from mesothelioma, to a meeting with the Schools Minister, David Laws MP. The teacher very eloquently and bravely explained to the Minister how Government policies have failed to ensure that children and staff in schools are safe. She gave evidence that present Government policies are not working and fundamental policy changes have to be made.

The Minister assured them that if the evidence was that asbestos posed a risk to school staff and pupils then, regardless of cost, measures would be taken to ensure that schools were made safe. However he stressed his policy is based on HSE advice, and that advice is that schools are safe and staff and children are not at risk from asbestos in schools. He also claimed that in general schools are effectively managing their asbestos. Therefore on the evidence available to him he could not justify to the Treasury the need to spend large amounts of money on mitigating the effects of asbestos in schools.  

Comment: HSE’s advice to the Minister supports and justifies his policies. It provides the justification for the Government to maintain the status quo rather than addressing the very serious problem that is asbestos in schools. It saves the Government money. There is extensive evidence that HSE advice is deeply flawed. Some of that evidence is in the following paragraphs. In addition evidence has been submitted to the DfE and HSE about ineffective and unsafe standards of asbestos management in schools, the disturbance of asbestos in schools, the increased risk  to children and the subsequent deaths of school staff and former pupils. The Minister chose to overlook that evidence in the meeting.  

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3. Number of school teachers dying from mesothelioma has increased

Part of the evidence is that the occupants of schools are dying of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. The latest statistics obtained yesterday under the Freedom of Information Act show that the numbers of school teachers who have died of mesothelioma has increased. Seventeen school teachers and three teaching and educational support assistants died of mesothelioma in 2011. (1)

In comparison on average between 2001 and 2005 thirteen school teachers died a year of mesothelioma and fifteen died a year between 2006 and 2010. In a profession where one would expect minimal or no asbestos exposure these deaths add to the evidence that people have been exposed to asbestos at school and are dying as a consequence.  However there are many more children than teachers in schools.

Research commissioned by the Medical Research Council concluded that “It is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings.... Exposure to asbestos in school may therefore constitute a significant part of total exposure” (2)

In June the Government’s advisory committee on cancer concluded that children are more at risk from exposure to asbestos than adults, the younger the child the greater the risk.(3) In March a leading epidemiologist gave evidence to the Parliamentary Education Select Committee that it is a reasonable assumption that up to three hundred people will die each year from their asbestos exposure experienced as a child at school. (4)

Britain has the highest mesothelioma incidence in the world at 38.4 per million per annum.  In comparison almost thirty years ago the USA implemented stringent asbestos regulations specifically for schools, their incidence has stabilised at 14 per million per annum since 1999. This week a House of Lords written answer estimated that a further 60,000 people would die in Britain over the next thirty years from mesothelioma. 

It is probable that a significant proportion of those deaths will have been caused by asbestos exposure at school. And yet, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Minister has reassured a teacher dying of mesothelioma, and the Parliamentary Select Committee, that schools are safe and his policies are working. 

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4. Asbestos ripped out of school with crowbars. Failures in asbestos management. School fined.

Further proof that schools are not effectively managing their asbestos came this week when Aston Manor Academy was fined for serious failures in asbestos management that led to workmen ripping out asbestos insulating board with crowbars. The incident cost the school £20,000 through decontamination and replacement of floor coverings. Soft furnishings and children’s work had to be disposed of and parts of the school could not be used for the second part of the summer term.”
The HSE stated“Although the school had not been under local authority control since 2011, it failed to ensure employees and management received adequate training to make up for the loss of local authority support and ensure that a suitable asbestos management plan was in place.”

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5. More than £1million needed to make a school safe from asbestos

The news comes in the same week that more than £1million of asbestos removal and encasing has been completed at Cwmcarn High School in Caerphilly. The school was closed more than a year ago when the Council, two firms of asbestos consultants and an independent assessor concluded the school was unsafe. Tests had shown that the heaters were releasing asbestos fibres into the classrooms, there was widespread asbestos contamination and evidence of frequent damage to asbestos insulating board.

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6. Review of Government Policy towards asbestos in schools

The Government is about to review its asbestos policy for schools. AiS unsuccessfully asked for an independent review so that impartiality could be assured. However the Minister has decided the review will be led by DfE in conjunction with HSE.  There will be a call for evidence and details of the consultation will shortly be given by DfE. It is essential that individuals and organisations provide evidence to the review that finally proves to the Minister that his policies for asbestos in schools are not working.

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7. Secretary of State and Schools Minister agreed to scrap the DfE Asbestos Steering Group.

The Guardian have been copied a leaked document that showed that David Laws and Michael Gove had decided to scrap the DfE Asbestos Steering Group. The document stated: "This is an emotive policy area and closing down the current stakeholder group would be controversial … Furthermore, any isolated incident of a school closing due to asbestos will mean we need to be able to respond.
"We are hence proposing to put this on a care and maintenance basis [rather than having permanent officials working on it]. We will need effective stakeholder management in closing down the steering group."

In 2009 the last Prime Minister acknowledged that there is a serious problem of asbestos in schools and one that his government would address. As a consequence the DfE Asbestos Steering Group was established to improve the asbestos management in schools. (5)  Since its formation the Group has achieved most constructive progress, amongst which has been commissioning the assessment of the asbestos risks to children, raising asbestos awareness amongst schools and drafting asbestos guidance specifically for schools.

At this week’s meeting the Minister was pressed over his decision to scrap the Group. We stressed its importance and how it is essential the Group continues so long as there is asbestos in schools. After some deliberation he stated that the DfE Steering Group would continue - We must ensure that he keeps his word.

Michael Lees
22 November 2013


(1) HSE FOI Ref no. 2013110056 - Response letter - Michael Lees - 21 November 2013 Male and Female mesothelioma deaths aged 16-74 for occupations in the education sector in Great Britain 2011
(2) Medical Research Council Fibrous Material in the Environment 1997
(3) Committee on Carcinogenicity Statement: The relative vulnerability of children to asbestos compared to adults. 7 Jun 2013
(4) Parliamentary Education Select Committee Hearing Asbestos in Schools 13th March 2013
(5) Meeting PM/AiS 13 May 2009

Michael Lees: Tel: 01409 241496 mob: 0791 0947362


Authoritative research can be seen at; that is closely referenced with sources, has a search facility so you can find your specific interest and can be quoted. You can also contact us as shown below or by replying to this email.






1. WWII gas masks warning to schools
2. Meeting with Schools Minister
3. Number of school teachers dying of mesothelioma has increased
4. Asbestos ripped out of school with crowbars. Failures in asbestos management. School fined
5. More than £1 million needed to make school safe from asbestos
6. Review of government policy on asbestos in schools
7. Sec. of State and Schools Minister agreed to scrap DfE Asbestos Steering Group

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