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Asbestos in Schools

Two misleading Statements
by Councils, and other authorities

(References shown by numbers in the text are below the analysis)


Misleading Statement : Safer to Manage than Remove

“If asbestos is in good condition and not likely to be disturbed then it is usually safer to manage it than it is to remove it.”

This is misleading because even the best system of asbestos management can fail and release the deadly fibres. Also normal surveys do not assess the condition of the hidden asbestos, therefore nobody can say whether it is in good condition or not.

There is ample evidence that the asbestos in many schools is not in good condition. This applies just as much to traditionally built schools as it does to system built schools. Often the damaged asbestos has lain undetected for years.

For instance there is a case of a Victorian school where disintegrating asbestos lagging and debris in the attic had lain undetected for decades, until air tests proved that the amosite fibres were filtering into the classrooms. Another where crocidolite asbestos lagging in an attic was badly damaged leaving debris lying above the infant classroom.

About half the schools in the country are system built and many contain large amounts of asbestos, all of it old and much of it deteriorating. Because of their structure much of the damaged asbestos is hidden, undetected within the voids.  

A normal asbestos survey is most unlikely to identify the asbestos hidden in the wall voids, beneath the floors or in the less accessible places. Also, although the surveys are meant to look in the ceiling voids and beneath removable floor ducting, they frequently do not.  On 3rd June 2009 the Minister turned down a request from the teaching unions and asbestos consultants that all asbestos should be identified when schools are refurbished. A request was also turned down to trial systems of air sampling to identify the hidden asbestos.

Nobody therefore knows if hidden asbestos is in good condition or deteriorating and releasing fibres. The only way to establish this is with comprehensive air tests or static sampling carried out during a normal school day when panels are being hit, doors slammed and children are running down corridors. These conditions can also be simulated out of school hours with realistic disturbance testing. Standard surveys do not do these tests.

Systems of asbestos management are mainly designed for maintenance work, not for every day occupation.

Even if the asbestos has been identified then there is ample evidence that the standards of asbestos management in many schools are in ineffective and the management plans unworkable. 

In a school even with the best system of asbestos management it can fail, for it only takes an accident, an act of vandalism or boisterous behaviour and the asbestos can be damaged and the fibres released. The frequent asbestos incidents in schools are testament to this. (1)

Many management plans are only designed to “manage” the asbestos when building and maintenance work takes place, however that is not the only way to disturb asbestos - normal school life can do it. For instance twenty years ago tests in system built schools showed that slamming doors, and hitting walls can, and does disturb the asbestos in these schools to a dangerous level. So does poking walls, windows flexing in a strong wind, vandalism and children running down corridors. In these cases no doubt the school authorities were perfectly content that their system of asbestos management was working, when only air sampling proved that it was not.

Dangerous levels of asbestos fibres can be released from everyday activities.

The problem was identified as deteriorating AIB panels, sprayed asbestos, AIB off cuts, asbestos debris and fibres lying hidden within the walls, ceilings and structural columns, much of which had lain undetected for three or more decades since the schools were first built. The slightest disturbance acting like bellows and ejecting the fibres out through the smallest of cracks. This asbestos is not in a good condition, for it is in a dangerous condition, and yet it was supposedly being “managed.” 

Having first discovered this problem in 1987 and then rediscovered it in 2006, the recommended system of management devised by the HSE does not recommend removing the damaged asbestos and debris, instead it is to leave it where it is, hidden out of sight, and seal any gap or crack with bathroom sealant in an attempt to prevent the asbestos fibres entering the rooms. This is a nigh on impossible task in a school for wherever air can pass then asbestos fibres can just as readily, and it is also a short term expedient. It just takes one crack that has been missed, one failure of a seal, or a strip of sealant being pulled out and once again the occupants of the rooms are placed at risk.(2) Can it honestly be said that this sticky plaster solution of “management” is safer than removing the damaged, deteriorating asbestos debris and fibres?

Removal is safer for the occupants. This is privately acknowledged by the HSE and DCSF.

It is clearly safer for children, teachers, caretakers and maintenance staff if asbestos is correctly removed rather than left in place. The risk is to the asbestos removal contractors rather than the future occupants of the rooms, and these days there are stringent measures in place that so long as they are followed, reduce the risks to the contractors to the minimum.

Documents were obtained from the DCSF under the Freedom of Information Act that show that both they and the HSE privately acknowledge that removal of asbestos is safer for the occupants, although it is equally clear that that they have no wish to admit this publicly. The document gives a briefing on the position the Department of Education officials should take in a meeting with the General Secretary of the NUT and . It states:

“HSE consider it safe to reoccupy buildings after asbestos has been properly removed (although monitoring is needed)

I suggest therefore, we do not raise this issue tomorrow.” (3)

Despite evidence to the contrary HSE will not publicly admit that their policy of management is flawed.

In January 2009 during a BBC interview, the Head of the HSE Service Sector had been given evidence of a serious failure in asbestos management where AIB had been damaged including panels with numerous holes being drilled in them. She stated


 “No I didn’t say that asbestos was safe. I said that it was for the duty holder to make sure it didn’t represent a risk to health. You are calling it a problem. I don’t think that it is a problem. I think that it is a health risk that is being managed.” (4)

It is extraordinary that a senior HSE official should state that she doesn’t think that it is a problem when she had just been given evidence about a manifest failure in asbestos management. The failure was such that it consequently led to an improvement notice being issued by the HSE for a failure in asbestos management.

In April 2009 an excellent BBC Radio Scotland report examined the whole issue of asbestos in schools, where serious cases of failures in asbestos management were raised, cases of widespread contamination were cited and a teacher dying from mesothelioma was interviewed. Despite all the evidence to the contrary the HSE defended their policy of management and when asked if there was a policy to undertake air sampling to identify the hidden damaged asbestos they stated:

“No there isn’t. Why would one do that ? Why would one spend money on air testing? (5)

So the end result is that the hidden, damaged asbestos remains undetected, hidden within the structure of the building and yet nobody knows it is there. It therefore cannot be managed.

Next time question the official statement that it is safer to manage.

Therefore just question them next time a local authority spokesman or a senior official gives the reassuring statement “If asbestos is in good condition and not likely to be disturbed then it is usually safer to manage it than it is to remove it.”

Remember, authorities sometimes rely on standard official statements to deal with asbestos incidents and queries. Such statements may be misleading or not relevant in a particular situation. Sometimes they may also not be true.

 

Footnotes

1. Follow this link fo recent asbestos reports and incidents

3. Department of Education Wilson A&B Branch/ Mr Hedger Asbestos 18 Oct 93

4. The BBC 1 "Inside Out" report on asbestos in schools of 25 March 2009  can be seen on this link .

5. HSE HQ Scotland Chief Inspector . BBC Radio Scotland 6 Apr 09 The report can be heard at this link BBC Investigation

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Second Misleading Statement:
Asbestos will be Removed during Refurbishments

The following statement has been made by Ministers and Local Authorities:
“Major refurbishments undertaken under BSF would normally include the removal of all asbestos, and any deteriorating material would normally be identified by a type 2 survey and removed.” (6)

This is probably true but it is also misleading because:

The evidence is that most schools will not have their asbestos removed.

This is because the Government policy is that “If asbestos is in good condition and not likely to be disturbed then it is usually safer to manage it than it is to remove it.” Consequently the asbestos does not have to be removed during refurbishment.

This was confirmed by the Schools Minister who was asked in a Parliamentary question :

“If he will require all asbestos to be removed from school buildings during refurbishment projects undertaken as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme.

He replied that:

“There is no requirement to remove asbestos from buildings during refurbishment.

The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations ... do not require the automatic removal of Asbestos Containing Materials

If the material is in good condition and will not be disturbed then it does not pose a health risk and it is usually safer to leave it in place and manage it. If the material is damaged or is likely to be disturbed and it cannot be repaired or protected, it should be removed. (7)

In a recent Parliamentary debate, 25th March 2009, the DCSF Minister stated that all asbestos would normally be removed in BSF major refurbishments but she failed to mention primary school policy.  About a third of the 3,400 secondary schools will have a major refurbishment, about half will be rebuilt and the remainder will be partially refurbished.  Whereas only 5% of the 20,400 primary schools will be replaced, less than half will be refurbished and the remainder will have minor works undertaken. 

At a meeting on 3rd June with the DCSF Minister she was asked whether asbestos will be removed from primary schools during refurbishment. DCSF stated that it is not for the Government to decide, instead the decision is left to individual local authorities.  It was also emphasised by DCSF that the primary school refurbishment would often be no more than “decoration.” 

The policy of managing rather than removing is borne out by the facts as increasingly the evidence shows that the asbestos will not be removed from primary schools unless the refurbishment is likely to disturb the asbestos. A couple of examples are as follows:

In Kent the Council Official who manages the authority’s estate gave a statement in February 2009, saying: 

“Even the schools rebuilding and refurbishment programme would not spell the complete end for asbestos in all schools and that enclosed in walls or ceilings would be left unless it posed a risk or was exposed.” (8)

In April 2009 Norfolk County Council were asked whether they would remove all asbestos during refurbishment. They replied

“Asbestos material that is not within the scope of the refurbishment project and will therefore not be affected by it, will not normally be removed....” (9)

The Government’s policy is therefore very clear, for despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they stick to their flawed policy that it is safer to manage the asbestos rather than removing it.  Therefore rather than taking this golden opportunity of ridding all schools of asbestos once and for all, they instead allow the local authorities to leave it in place and manage it.

Once the schools have been refurbished with huge amounts of money, there will not be a second chance to remove the asbestos, instead it will have to be managed long into the future.  Future generations will therefore remain at risk for one failure in asbestos management, one accident or just a child running into a wall and the deadly asbestos fibres will be released once again. 

So next time an official or a Government Minister says to you “Major refurbishments undertaken under BSF would normally include the removal of all asbestos, and any deteriorating material would normally be identified by a type 2 survey and removed.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your child’s school is going to have all the asbestos removed, for if it is a primary school the chances are that it won’t.

Michael Lees 22 June 2009

Footnotes

1. Follow this link fo recent asbestos reports and incidents

3. Department of Education Wilson A&B Branch/ Mr Hedger Asbestos 18 Oct 93

4. The BBC 1 "Inside Out" report on asbestos in schools of 25 March 2009  can be seen on this link .

5. HSE HQ Scotland Chief Inspector . BBC Radio Scotland 6 Apr 09 The report can be heard at this link BBC Investigation

6. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for DCSF Sarah McCarthy-Fry Asbestos (Schools) Debate 25 Mar 2009

7. Minister of State for Schools, Rt Hon Jim Knight MP, Parliamentary answer 142291 25 Jun 07

9. Letter Director of Children’s Services Norfolk County Council / Richard Bacon MP 8 Apr 2009