News & Views

Slamming doors a killer? Asbestos in schools

BY Thomas Elliott
Health & Safety
BG Orange

An influential group of MPs has called on the government to start removing asbestos from all schools to protect staff and children from the material’s potentially harmful effects.

In a report sent to MPs and Peers in February, the Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health said that more than 75% Britain’s 33,600 schools contain asbestos, and laid out six proposals to prevent staff and pupils from being exposed to the deadly fibres.

Britain has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world – 37.8 cases per million per annum (or about 2321 deaths in 2009) – more than double that of France, Germany, or the USA, and twice as many people die from asbestos exposure in Britain as are killed on the roads.

According to the MPs, more than 140 school teachers have died from asbestos-related mesothelioma in the past ten years, and they claim this number is the “tip of the iceberg”. Based on US estimates that for every teacher’s death, nine children will die, the MPs speculate that more than 100 people die every year in the UK from exposure at school.

The MPs claim that successive governments have seen the issue as ‘too big to handle’, and argue that the government should take responsibility for removing asbestos from all schools.

They are calling on the HSE to reverse the decision made in March last year to cease pro-active inspections in schools, after they, along with other workplaces like offices and shops, were defined as ‘low-risk’. The HSE is also advised to work with the Department for Education (DfE) to develop specific asbestos guidance for schools and review current standards.

They are also calling for improved information on asbestos in schools. First, they say parents and teachers should be updated annually on the presence of asbestos and the measures that are being taken to manage it. Second, they insist that data on the extent, type and condition of asbestos is collected centrally.

An education department spokesperson said the HSE’s advice was based on the best current evidence, and that if asbestos is not disturbed or damaged, then it is safer to leave it in situ, with robust processes in place to contain and monitor it.

But, the parliamentary group say that slamming doors, or hitting walls and columns can release asbestos fibres, and that when their release occurs every day over the course of many years, the “cumulative exposures of staff and pupils are considerable”.

The HSE said the organisation’s recent inspections of local authority and independent schools had found that the majority of schools were adequately managing asbestos, though a proportion did fall below acceptable standards.

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