Cenric Clement-Evans discusses the ongoing problem with asbestos in UK schools in an article featured on the APIL website.
As a personal injury lawyer, my role is normally to try and help people piece back together their lives after suffering serious injury. Campaigning on the issue of asbestos in schools, though, gives me a rare opportunity to change the future.
More than 75 per cent of Britain’s state schools contain asbestos and indeed in Wales the percentage is higher at approximately 85 per cent. In other words the vast majority of the population of the UK may have encountered asbestos whilst at school.
I first became aware of the issue when I was instructed on behalf of a school cleaner who had been diagnosed with the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma. Unsurprisingly she was unable to recall any exposure to asbestos. It did not occur to her that she might have been exposed to asbestos as a child at school or later when working at a number of schools.
Not long afterwards I had the privilege of hearing Michael Lees MBE speak. Michael, who lost his wife Gina, a schoolteacher aged only 51, to mesothelioma, has been a tireless campaigner on asbestos in schools and his sheer bloody minded persistence has been an inspiration to many including myself.
I quickly realised that whilst in England, the Department for Education was taking some note, in Wales where health and education are both devolved to Welsh government, no-one appeared to be taking responsibility for the problem. This led to the founding of the Right to Know Asbestos in Schools campaign. I have since become part of the UK Asbestos in Schools Group and attend the Joint Union Asbestos Committee as an observer.
So why is this important? We are seeing an increasing number of teachers, a profession not normally associated with exposure to asbestos, dying from mesothelioma. This has risen from three teachers per year dying in 1980 to 22 by 2012. Official statistics only record deaths aged up to 75. Former teachers aged over 75 have also died from mesothelioma. Since 1980 more than 291 teachers have died.
There are also deaths from mesothelioma amongst teaching assistants and school secretaries. It is known that school cleaners, caretakers and cooks are also dying but the occupational statistics are generic and do not identify those who worked in schools.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, however, because for every teacher there are 20-30 children, and they are more vulnerable. We are now seeing people dying from mesothelioma as a result of childhood exposure.
In June 2013 the Committee on Carcinogenicity reported to the Department for Education that children were more vulnerable than adults to asbestos exposure.
Committee member and world renowned epidemiologist Professor Julian Peto has estimated that between 200-300 people will die each year because of their exposure to asbestos at school in the 1960s and 1970s.
If people were dying in such numbers because of accidents on the roads or at work then there would be an outcry. However because of the nature of mesothelioma, and the fact that it takes decades for the disease to become symptomatic, exposure to asbestos in our schools is not getting the attention it deserves.
As our school buildings age, it is becoming harder to manage the asbestos in our schools. The excellent report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health “Asbestos in Schools.
The need for action” contains the following recommendations:-
• “The Government should set a programme for the phased removal of asbestos from all schools, with priority being given to those schools where the asbestos is considered to be most dangerous or damaged.
• Standards in asbestos training should be set and the training should be mandatory and properly funded.
• A trial should take place to perfect a system of widespread air sampling in schools.
• A policy of openness should be adopted. Parents, teachers and support staff should be annually updated on the presence of asbestos in their schools and the measures that are being taken to manage it.
• Pro-active inspections to determine the standards of asbestos management should be reinstated, with a view to reducing future costs.
• Data should be collected centrally on the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools and this becomes an integral part of the data collection of the condition of the nation’s schools.”
A real issue is that we do not know the measure of the problem that faces us, as we do not truly know the extent of the asbestos in our schools. Governments need to collate the data so that the action to be taken can be properly assessed.
To quote from Professor Peto’s evidence to the Education Select Committee in March 2013
“All that matters is whether or not kids are breathing in asbestos and, until you find that out, everything else is hot air”
We cannot afford further inaction!