The Government’s Review of Asbestos Policy for Schools
The Asbestos in Schools Group welcomes the fact that the Government has reviewed its asbestos policy for schools in England. The report was published today 12th March some eight months later than planned. It is a positive step forward and makes a number of constructive proposals and concessions that previously had not been publicly made.
They include a call for a greater transparency from schools and local authorities. The Department for Education acknowledges that children are more at risk from asbestos exposure than adults and that school staff and former pupils have died from their asbestos exposure at school. They state that asbestos will be removed when schools are refurbished under the Priority Schools Building Programme.
However asbestos will remain in the vast majority of schools for many years to come, the review therefore proposes a number of measures to assist schools in effectively managing their asbestos, including issuing revised asbestos guidance and making a clear statement that asbestos training is compulsory for teachers and support staff. Measures will also be introduced to determine whether schools are managing their asbestos effectively. Staff and pupils are put at risk when asbestos fibres are released, therefore a further proposal is to undertake a study in fifty schools to assess the levels of asbestos fibres in the classrooms and other rooms.
Although the review and its report are positive steps in the right direction, there is a lack of vision and the Government have failed to introduce the fundamental long term strategies that are needed to eventually eradicate the problem of asbestos from our schools. The report acknowledges there is a problem of asbestos in schools, but it has been selective in its choice of evidence and has failed to acknowledge the extensive and authoritative evidence spanning some fifty years that proves there is a serious problem. At times the report is not impartial and conceals difficult issues rather than addressing them. As a result present policies have been tweaked but only a few concrete proposals made.
Evidence was given to the review that the incidence of mesothelioma in Britain is by far the worst in the world and that is because we imported more amosite. Amosite was used extensively in the walls, ceilings, heaters, window and door surrounds of thousands of schools and is vulnerable to damage from children. Because of this we have a worse asbestos problem in our schools than other countries.
The dangers inherent in even the best system of asbestos management were encapsulated by the business manager of a secondary school who responded to the consultation. He said that there are over a thousand teenagers in his school who sometimes struggle to contain their emotions, so it is inevitable asbestos is disturbed. A system of asbestos management that might work in a building used by adults will not be suitable for young people.
Evidence was given how other countries have tackled the problem. More than thirty years ago the USA carried out a similar review of their asbestos policy for schools. It determined the extent of friable asbestos in their schools, estimated the number of staff and former pupils who would die. Because it acknowledged the increased risks to children it adopted asbestos laws specifically for schools. In contrast we have still not taken the preliminary steps of assessing the scale of the problem and the risks. Both of these are central to any risk assessment or any cost benefit analysis.
The Government is unaware of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in our schools and the review has made no attempt to remedy this. DfE have just completed a two year survey of the condition of school buildings but it specifically excluded asbestos. This is irrational as asbestos can be one of the most expensive items when maintaining, refurbishing or demolishing a school. By excluding it, schools with the most dangerous materials cannot be identified, priorities cannot be set and any financial forecasts will be meaningless. The report goes no further than saying they will keep their decision to exclude asbestos from the collation of data under review.
DfE have previously made a rough estimate that 75% of schools contain asbestos, and has based its decisions on that. But information is available as Freedom of Information requests have shown that number of schools is considerably higher than that.
The review acknowledges that former pupils have died because of their asbestos exposure at school, but it fails to estimate the numbers who will die. The evidence it fails to include is that between 200 and 300 people could die each year from their asbestos exposure as a child at school in the 1960 and 1970s. Most of the asbestos remains, and there is evidence the exposures continue. The report acknowledges that school teachers and support staff are dying of the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma. 158 school teachers have died in the last ten years and 291 have died since 1980. Over a twenty year period between 4,000 and 6,000 people could die. That is an appalling death toll just from the simple act of attending school.
The report has been weighted in favour of the controversial view that, in the main, the present policies are working and that, although some people have died, the risks to children and staff from asbestos are low. But they have not published the evidence on which they have based these assumptions. The report implies that when teachers die of mesothelioma their asbestos exposures might not have happened at school, with no evidence to support that. Whilst acknowledging court verdicts when people have died of mesothelioma it fails to take account of coroners’ courts. These courts examine the evidence when people die of mesothelioma and they have concluded on a significant number of occasions that asbestos exposure at school was causative of teacher’s and support staff deaths.
In 1967 the Department for Education was warned by the Chief Medical Officer of the Factories Inspectorate that children are particularly at risk from asbestos exposure and that asbestos should not be used in schools. Despite the concerns of their own officials the advice was ignored and schools continued to use asbestos in classrooms and large numbers of schools were built for many more years with the extensive use of the most dangerous asbestos materials in places vulnerable to children. It was only after the Government’s advisory committee on cancer confirmed in 2013 that children are more vulnerable to asbestos exposure that the Department for Education agreed to review their asbestos policy for schools.
The teachers, support staff and former pupils are now dying because the evidence and the warnings were not heeded. The Government have finally, and publicly, acknowledged that there is a problem and this review provides a starting platform on which to build future policy.
- All asbestos can cause cancer.
- There is no known threshold of exposure to asbestos below which there is no risk.
- In 2009 87% of schools in England contained asbestos. Based on FOI data from ¾ of schools.
- Many have asbestos insulating board walls and ceilings in corridors, halls, classrooms, gyms and toilets where it is vulnerable to damage from children.
- This review has taken place because the Minister gave a commitment that asbestos policies would be reviewed once the Government’s advisory committee on cancer had assessed the risks to children from asbestos. In 2013 the Committee on Carcinogenicity confirmed that children are more vulnerable to asbestos exposure than adults. The lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma for a five year old child is about five times greater than an adult aged thirty.
- Britain has by far the worst mesothelioma incidence in the world.
- In 2012 the incidence was 39.2 per million per annum of the population, and it is increasing.
- In the USA it has stabilised since 1999 at less than 14 per million per annum.
- The USA determined the scale of the asbestos problem in schools and estimated that for every teacher and support staff death from mesothelioma nine former pupils would die. Consequently in 1986 they introduced stringent asbestos regulation for schools.
- For more information see: www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk
Michael Lees MBE e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org tel: 01409 241496 mob:0791 0947362
Annette Brooke OBE MP e-mail: email@example.com Tel: 020 7219 8193