Are thousands of children at risk?

Written by: HTU | Published:

Tens of thousands of children and teachers could die unless the government acts now on asbestos in schools, MPs have been told.

Tens of thousands of children and teachers could die unless the government acts now on asbestos in schools, MPs have been told.



During a debate called in the House of Commons, Ian Lavery MP demanded that the Department for Education enforce a clear strategy for tackling asbestos in schools, including the phased removal of asbestos containing materials.



Mr Lavery told the House that even the simplest of tasks such as inserting drawing pins into the walls or slamming a door five times could release levels of amosite (brown asbestos) fibres more than 600 times greater than the level normally found outdoors.



He also criticised previous governments for viewing the issue as “too big to handle" and said that many students and teachers currently in schools are unaware of where asbestos containing materials are located – and what kind of asbestos it is.



He added: “Exposure to asbestos in schools is endangering the lives of tens of thousands of school children and teachers, many of whom are completely unaware of their daily exposure.



“It has continued for generations, and year after year, individuals diagnosed with lung cancer, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are puzzled about the whereabouts of their exposure. In many cases, it happened while they were at school."



The debate took place on February 7, a week after a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health had heavily criticised the asbestos situation, labelling it a “national scandal".



The report said that more than 140 teachers in the UK have died from asbestos-related diseases, including the cancer mesothelioma, in the past 10 years, and emphasised that 75 per cent of British schools still contain the deadly substance.



The report urged the government to set up a programme for the phased removal of asbestos from all schools – with priority being given to the most dangerous or damaged.



It called too for mandatory asbestos training standards and said that parents and school staff should be annually updated on the asbestos in their schools and the measures being taken to manage it safely.



During the House of Commons debate, Mr Lavery pushed for a government strategy to remove asbestos in schools. However, the call was dismissed by schools minister Nick Gibb, who told MPs that the coalition government is following the Health and Safety Executive's advice that if asbestos is in “good condition" then it is safer to leave it where it is than disrupt it by removing the substance.



Mr Lavery claimed that children in schools are likely to be “particularly vulnerable" to being diagnosed with a terminal illness because they are of an age where their lungs are still developing.



He said that based on data from America, for every teacher that dies from asbestos-related disease, nine children will die. Translated to the UK, he added, this would result in 100 people dying each year because of exposure to asbestos at school.



Mr Lavery urged the government to set up a legally binding survey for all schools in England. He said this would consist of air testing to find exposure levels as well as detailed independent inspections.



Elsewhere in the debate, Annette Brook MP said that the government should go “further" to ensure staff are trained and aware of problems such as putting drawing pins in walls containing asbestos materials.



Tom Blenkinsop MP added that he knew of one school in his constituency with at least six boilers where the piping is “lagged with asbestos" but he said that it cannot afford to replace the boilers.



Elsewhere, Mr Lavery questioned Mr Gibb on who exactly is responsible for managing asbestos.



Mr Gibb responded: “There is a need for headteachers and governors to be aware of their responsibilities when commissioning building or maintenance work.



“Duty holders should have already taken steps to identify whether asbestos is present in their buildings and assessed the condition of the asbestos, and should have access to records of that information. The duty holder also needs to assess and manage risks to ensure that people are not exposed to asbestos fibres."



• You can read the All-Party Parliamentary Group report at www.jimsheridanmp.org.uk/asbestosinschoolsreport.pdf


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