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Asbestos in Schools
Parliamentary Question Annette Brooke
Summary Analysis of the Minister's Answer
The Minister of State for Employment, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, answered the question in his capacity as the Minister with responsibility for the HSE. He concentrates on teachers’ deaths, fails to address the mesothelioma deaths that occur amongst every other category of support staff in schools and avoids answering the question about children. His answer attempts to put a positive gloss on the appalling number of asbestos related deaths amongst the occupants of schools, and in so doing it is irresponsibly misleading.
In principle the Minister argues that it is acceptable for school teachers to die from an asbestos related disease as it is a normal hazard of working life. He is wrong, and what is more his answer avoids addressing the serious implications of the teachers’ deaths. In a profession where there should be minimal or no asbestos exposure teachers should not be dying of asbestos related disease – but they are. In occupations such as farming where they genuinely have little asbestos exposure they have well below average death rates, and teachers should also. The fact that teachers have “average” death rates shows that as a profession they have been exposed to asbestos.
The Minister quotes from a recent study into mesothelioma and implies that there is no concern because the numbers of teachers’ mesotheliomas are the same as office workers. In contrast to the Minister, a joint author of the study acknowledges that the study does not imply that there is no risk to teachers. But the Minister fails to acknowledge that just because a dangerous carcinogen is killing people in other occupations it does not make it acceptable that it is also killing people in schools. Some office workers are known to have had significant levels of asbestos exposure, particularly those working in factories and engineering firms, and both their mesothelioma deaths and those of teachers occur at a significantly greater rate than those who really have had little asbestos exposure.
What in effect the study and the statistics prove is that both teachers and office workers have suffered significant asbestos exposure and as a consequence have developed mesothelioma. The relevant difference between the two, which the Minister again fails to acknowledge or address, is that as the teachers were being exposed to asbestos, then so were the children. It is known that children are more at risk from asbestos exposure. Everyone attends school and at any one time there are more than nine million children at school. That is why there is great concern about teachers’ deaths, as they indicate a far greater number of subsequent deaths amongst the children.
The Minister fails to mention that the study also concludes that the incidence of mesothelioma in Britain is the greatest in the world, and that the incidence of people with mesothelioma who are unaware of where they were exposed is four times greater than elsewhere in the world – which is precisely the type of exposures that occur in schools. The study also emphasises that mesothelioma risk is determined largely by asbestos exposure before the age of 30 which has particular relevance to childhood exposure.
The Minister’s implication is that the teachers’ asbestos exposures occurred anywhere other than a school. That is despite a Medical Research Council report that concluded “It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that the whole of the school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings.” The report also stresses the extensive use of particularly amosite (brown asbestos) in schools, which is 100 times more dangerous that chrysotile (white). There is evidence of frequent asbestos incidences in schools and the exposure of staff and pupils. All asbestos exposures are cumulative and there is no threshold level below which there is no risk. It is reasonable to conclude that the exposures of the teachers and support staff contributed towards their mesotheliomas and their deaths. The Coroners have come to this conclusion at the inquests of teachers, and yet instead of heeding the warnings the HSE and the Minister instead dismiss the mounting evidence.
The Minister’s answer puts a positive spin on the teachers’ deaths, ignores the support staff deaths and ignores the relevance to school children. A year and a half ago the Asbestos in Schools group asked the Prime Minister to task the Government’s scientific advisory committee, WATCH, to assess the asbestos risks in schools, and particularly the risks to children. This has not been done. In another Parliamentary answer, a few days earlier than this one, the Minister of State for Schools stated that his Department had no plans to commission an assessment of the risks from asbestos in schools to children and other occupants.
They are ignoring the basic principles of risk management. If the Government are to allocate proportionate resources it is essential that they assess the scale of the asbestos problem in schools and the risks to the occupants.
A full paper with authoritative references and detailed analysis is at this link. It also contains the full question and answer
10 January 2011