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Asbestos in Schools

Parliamentary Question, Answers and Comment

  • The Parliamentary Questions and Answers below are followed by referenced comment to Ministerial and department policy statements on children’s safety and on a lack of openness with parents.
  • The answers demonstrate that statements made by those in authority, including Government Ministers, cannot be justified. For, without any scientific basis, levels of workplace exposure for asbestos contractors are arbitrarily being applied to children in schools.  
  • Decisions have been made to leave asbestos in place when primary schools are refurbished. The Government has taken major decisions that affect the very lives of generations of staff and children, and yet the decisions have been taken without following the most basic principles of risk management, for neither the scale of the problem nor the risk have been assessed.

(The Parliamentary questions were asked by the Shadow Minister for Schools Nicolas Gibb MP. Vernon Coaker MP is the Minister of State for Schools and Learners. Jonathan Shaw MP is Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Work and Pensions)

(21 July 2009)

21 July 2009


Question One

Mr. Gibb: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (1) what assessment her Department has made of the health risks to (a) a child aged five years and (b) an adult aged 30 years from an exposure to 48 fibres of (i) crocidolite and (ii) amosite per millilitre of air in a 12 week period; [288723]

(2) what assessment her Department has made of the risk of (a) a child aged five years and (b) and adult aged 30 years developing mesothelioma as a consequence of exposure to asbestos; [288724]

(3) what assessment she has made of the health risks to (a) a child aged five years and (b) an adult aged 30 years from an exposure to 72 fibres of chrysotile per millilitre of air in a 12 week period.

Answer One

Jonathan Shaw: The information requested could be produced only at disproportionate cost as it is currently not available or cannot be produced on a sound scientific basis in respect of a five-year old.

The exposures in the question appear to relate to the “action levels” in the 2002 Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations which are no longer current. The current limit in the 2006 regulations is lower at 0.1 fibres per millilitre of air averaged over a four hour period. Irrespective of this limit the regulations require exposures to be reduced to the lowest reasonably practicable level below 0.1 fibres per millilitre.

Risk assessment models are available for mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer. These can be used to assess risk for given levels of exposure, exposure durations, types of asbestos, and the age at which exposure occurs—but only within the working age range.

Comment on Answer 1

(ref numbers in brackets refer to references and links at the foot of the page)

Risk. (ref 1)

The Minister is correct that “Action Levels” are no longer current, however despite that if there is an asbestos incident in a school DCSF and HSE refer school authorities to their current guidance OC265/48 which was updated last year, but nonetheless refers to the outdated Action Level and accompanying statement that exposure at 48fibres/millilitre of air would "usually have been insufficient to pose a significant long term risk to health." (ref 2) A former Schools Minister had also recommended that parents are not informed of their children’s exposure unless the Action Level has been exceeded. (ref 3) The statement has been strongly contested by experts in the field, as has the policy that parents are not informed of their children’s exposure. Even when it was in force, the Action Level applied to specialist asbestos contractors and not to the occupants of buildings and certainly not to children. The parliamentary answer confirms that there is no scientific basis on which to make the claim for children. There is also no scientific basis for them to continue making the claim for adults, and indeed the current risk estimates show that the statement is incorrect. It is unacceptable that outdated levels that were designed for asbestos contractors wearing masks and protective clothing are being applied to children, it is particularly unacceptable when there is no scientific basis on which to make the claims. This really underlines the fact that research should be carried out into the particular risks to children from asbestos.

It also highlights the fact that workplace control limits should not be applied to the occupants of rooms. In 1983 evidence was presented to a Parliamentary Select Committee that strongly supported the need for environmental asbestos control limits for the occupants of rooms, but nothing was done about it. The inevitable consequence is that the deaths from environmental exposures in the UK are now four times greater than elsewhere in the world, which confirms that an environmental limit is long overdue and should be set in law without further delay.

Question 2

Mr. Gibb: To ask the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (1) what recent assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policy on the wellbeing of children of the presence of asbestos in schools; and if he would make a statement; [288695]

(2) what measures are in place to (a) identify and (b) remove asbestos in schools being refurbished under (i) Building Schools for the Future and (ii) the Primary Capital Programme.

Answer 2

Mr. Coaker: Asbestos in schools should be managed in accordance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006. The legal requirements and associated guidance provides a framework that enables those responsible for schools to manage the risks from asbestos within school buildings. Asbestos is identified by surveys and removed where necessary in accordance with HSE guidance. Partnerships for Schools has included requirements for asbestos surveys in its standard contract documentation for Building Schools for the Future. Work carried out under the Primary Capital programme is subject to local procurement and asbestos management procedures which must comply with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.

It is DCSF and HSE's assessment that where asbestos is managed in accordance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations teachers and pupils are not likely to be at risk in the course of their normal activities.

Providing asbestos materials are maintained in good condition they can normally be left in situ and managed until the building reaches the end of its life when the asbestos containing materials can be removed without risk of exposing building users to risks arising from significant disturbance.

Comment on Answer 2

(Numbers in brackets refer to references and links at the foot of the page)

PCP (ref 4)

The answer about the Primary Capital Programme confirms in writing what was stated at a recent meeting between representatives from the asbestos in schools campaign and the Schools Minister Sarah McCarthy Fry, when DCSF stated that it is for local authorities and school governors to decide whether or not to remove asbestos from primary schools when they are refurbished. It also confirms that it is Government policy that it can be left in situ until the building reaches the end of its life. At the meeting DCSF also stated that there is not enough money to even identify all the asbestos when the primary schools are refurbished and that because PCP is less well funded than BSF most primary school refurbishments are just “decoration.”

All the evidence is that unless it is likely to be disturbed during the refurbishment, the bulk of asbestos material will be left in the majority of primary schools and will have to be managed for decades to come.

The Government do not know the risks to children from asbestos exposure, how much asbestos there is, or whether schools are managing it, and their failure to respond to a recent DCSF questionnaire shows that neither do the majority of local authorities and dioceses. The Government have refused to assess the scale of the problem or the risks, despite this running contrary to the most basic principles of risk management.  Without being able to justify their policy on the evidence available or on scientific grounds, Government policy encourages asbestos to be left in primary schools when they are refurbished. The end result is that future generations of staff and children will remain at risk, for it will take just one failure in asbestos management, a child running into a wall or a door being slammed and potentially dangerous levels of asbestos fibres will again be released


Michael Lees
23rd July 2009

(1) www.publications.parliament.uk Question One

(2) HSE; Exposure to asbestos from work activities 

(3) Letter Minister of State for Schools David Miliband  2004/0043423PODM 23 Aug 2004

(4) www.publications.parliament.uk Question Two