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ASBESTOS IN SCHOOLS
Teachers TV. 14 November 2008
Charlotte Hume: “Billions are to be spent on rebuilding primaries, but will it finally end the scourge of asbestos? More than 1500 primary schools are to be rebuilt or refurbished over the next two years. Ministers hope it will transform primary education and sweep away ageing buildings. Many older schools have large amounts of asbestos in their buildings and campaigners have been increasing pressure on the DCSF to undertake an audit. A group of medical experts, trade organisations and campaigners say they believe the numbers of teachers and pupils dying from asbestos related diseases is on the increase.
Laura Turner: “Around 13,000 schools in the UK contain asbestos. The Health and Safety Executive says as long as it remains sealed off and undisturbed it poses no health risk. But campaigners say that the numbers of teachers dying of mesothelioma is on the increase
John Edwards. “We know for a fact that whatever treatments we employ patients always die of the disease. That is the first thing, the second problem that we have with mesothelioma is that once patients develop it, it is rapidly progressive.
Lara Turner: Although the symptoms can take many decades to become apparent, once it is diagnosed a patient will usually die within twelve months.
Michael Lees’ wife Gina, a school teacher died from mesothelioma in 2000. Michael believes long term low level exposure to asbestos in the schools where she taught was to blame. He thinks that something as simple as putting a drawing pin into a wall containing asbestos can release the fibres.
Michael Lees: “In a school in Wandsworth, a system built school, they found that when they slammed the doors just five times, with asbestos that looked as if it was in good condition, they got levels of asbestos at thirty three times the Clearance indicator.”
Laura Turner: “Michael Lees is just one of several campaigners calling for a full audit of the state of asbestos in schools. One trade body said it sees badly managed asbestos in schools all the time.”
John Richards: Last summer we had six incidences in one local authority where asbestos had been discovered during refurbishment or pre refurbishment that had not been recorded properly.”
Laura Turner: “The fear is not just for teachers but for pupils also. Lawyers for Leigh Carlisle who died of mesothelioma earlier this year at the age of just 28 are investigating whether she contracted the disease from schools she attended as a child.”
Adrian Budgen: Take the fact that she was diagnosed at the age of 26, go back ten years at least when she was sixteen. So we felt that it was very likely that her exposure was while she was at school.”
Laura Turner: “In a statement DCSF said that HSE’s advice on asbestos in schools is absolutely clear. It said that its programme of revamping and rebuilding schools is sweeping away the legacy of outdated buildings and it said it has increased investment and maintenance in schools six-fold over the past decade.”
Charlotte Hume: HSE is responsible for monitoring the level of asbestos exposure in schools. Our correspondent Estelle Curry spoke to HSE’s Steve Coldrick, director of its Disease Reduction programme, and asked why no audit had been done.
Steve Coldrick : “I think that we have to do is distinguish between a concern and the likelihood of a problem. Very often people offer a solution but they don’t actually define what the problem is and we have to look at the risk of ill health and not the concern about ill health, and therefore define what we consider is an appropriate response.
Estelle Curry : “ One campaigner who’s wife was a teacher and died of mesothelioma has alleged that there has not been an investigation because of cost. Is cost an issue?
Steve Coldrick: “I think that statement is a misleading statement. What actually happened was that we did conduct a survey in schools to find out what the issues were, and there were two elements: First of all when we looked at actual exposures that were arising out of the scenarios that the individual posed, we found the exposures were actually very low. Secondly in checking the way in which schools manage their duty generally it was good, though it is true to say that in a couple of education authorities the standards were not as good and we took enforcement action. But otherwise they were generally sound.
Estelle Curry: “The number of teachers dying from mesothelioma is rising, is that not statistically significant?
Steve Coldrick: “I think that what we have to do is look at the bigger picture. The first point we need to understand is that the occupations most at risk now are tradesmen because there are half a million buildings that is commercial, retail, public and industrial buildings which contain asbestos materials, and all the evidence suggests that those whose jobs normally is to disturb and work on such materials have been and will continue to be at risk unless they take the proper precautions. If we look at a whole range of other occupations of which teachers are one, there is a much, much lower incidence of mesothelioma, and their incidence is no different from others such as office workers, domestic orderlies and receptionists and catering workers, so in that sense there is no special aspect in relation to teachers.
Estelle Curry: “We have to reassure people that if asbestos in schools is managed properly then there isn’t a risk, but some teachers will ask actually why won’t you remove the asbestos completely.
Steve Coldrick: “That is certainly an option. From a risk based approach, which is where HSE comes from, as you rightly say if the material is in a good condition, and kept that way, it poses no threat whatsoever, its only if it is disturbed and disturbed sufficiently and continuously where the fibres are released and they are inhaled that the risks start to increase. So provided that does not happen nobody should be concerned about it. The key to focus in on is maintaining the good condition of the fabric of the building.”
Today programme 30 Oct 08
Reporter: “The government and the Health and safety Executive (HSE) have resisted calls for a national register, saying much of the information is already publicly available and that the vast majority of cases, the material is well-monitored and maintained.”