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Asbestos in Schools

The Times

Britain's death rate is the highest in the world. So why do three quarters of schools still contain asbestos?

( It costs a £1subscription to the Times web site to read the two page article)

Three letters were published by the Times following the article. They are at the foot of the page.Please note the following before reading them:

The three letters to the Times are excellent. Paul Rowen’s letter asks for a Government policy of openness and calls for them to follow the basic principle of risk management by assessing the scale of the problem and the risks.

Dame Helena Shovelton quite rightly raises the problem of the widespread use of asbestos in people’s homes. This is most relevant as a child exposed to low level asbestos at school can then return home and continue to be exposed to low levels of asbestos at home. Their exposures therefore can take place over a prolonged period of time so that cumulatively they are significant. This underlines how essential it is for an assessment to be made of the increased vulnerability of children to asbestos.

Dr Andrew Lawson letter is most poignant, as he is suffering from mesothelioma. However the DFE was misleading in stating “Many teachers who die from mesothelioma have also worked in other “high risk” occupations.” This statement is based on an HSE case control study that examined the working history and known asbestos exposures of people suffering from mesothelioma. The group that DfE referred to was “Teachers and School workers.” This group included 24 people including school teachers, teachers in higher and further education and “other school workers” There were 12 people in the group who were school teachers and only 3 of them had worked in higher risk occupations. The group is statistically too small a group to be able to make definitive claims. If one did however draw statistical conclusions from the limited numbers then 75% of school teachers with mesothelioma had not worked in high risk occupations. There is therefore no statistically viable evidence to support DfE’s claim.

Sadly doctors and nurses are similar to teachers and school support staff in as much as they have worked in buildings containing deteriorating asbestos. Most schools and large numbers of hospitals contain asbestos, which has been disturbed over the years, so that cumulatively the exposures of the occupants have caused their mesothelioma.  

Follow this link for a table that shows the numbers of school teachers, teachers in higher and further education and “other school workers” used in the HSE study  “HSE Occupational, domestic and environmental mesothelioma risks in Britain. A case control study RR696 2009”

This link gives a comparison of the incidence of mesothelioma amongst school teachers compared to other similar occupations and also to occupations such as farming that are genuinely low risk.  It will be noted that the incidence (Proportional Mortality Ration, PMR) is significantly higher for school teachers, and teachers in higher and further education. (attachment comparison meso deaths)

The Letters: (published on 11 July 2011)

Paul J Rowen MP for Rochdale 2005 to 2010


Your excellent report on the ticking time bomb that was asbestos in our schools reveals the breathtaking complacency shown by the Department for Education.

Governments of all persuasions have sought to downplay both the dangers and their responsibility, claiming that it is for local education authorities to manage and that full  public disclosure would cause the public to panic.

Rising teacher deaths from mesothelioma are only the tip of the iceberg and cannot be dismissed as exposure to asbestos elsewhere. That is risible and typical of government attitudes to this important issue.

The duty to manage asbestos, for which head teachers receive little training, needs to be replaced with a national assessment of the extent and condition of asbestos, more research into the effects of low-level exposure on children and American-style openness with an annual update to parents and teachers.

Only then can assurances from DfE officials be taken seriously.


Dame Helena Shovelton, Chief Executive British Lung Foundation


Your report presents a shocking picture of the dangers of asbestos in schools. In addition, asbestos is found in residential homes across the country. Nearly 14 million homes were built in the UK when asbestos materials were being used in construction. Despite this, a British Lung Foundation survey found that today nearly two thirds (65%) of British homeowners are not confident of identifying asbestos in their own homes.

Mesothelioma is a cruel disease which kills one person every five hours in the UK.


Dr Andrew D Lawson, Medical Ethicist, Consultant in Pain Medicine & Anaesthesia 


I note the DfE's comment that many teachers have worked in high-risk occupations. Does the government think the same is true of doctors and nurses who have contracted this terrible disease? Of four doctors who trained at Guy's Hospital and who subsequently developed mesothelioma in the past five years, I am the only one left alive.

I know of others who have developed the disease. Asbestos was found at the ceiling tiles of the meeting room in Guy’s Tower last year.

You might think that the health service would come to swift solutions, minimising the stress of the horrors one has to go through. It's not the case.