Asbestos campaigners are calling for the government to adopt US-style laws requiring schools to tell teachers what is being done to manage the deadly substance.
Figures released by campaign group Asbestos in Schools (AiS) show that mesothelioma, the lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos fibres and dust, has killed 16 teachers a year in the last decade, up from three a year in the 1980s.
It is estimated that 75 per cent of school buildings have some asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) but current advice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is that if asbestos is not damaged then it is safer to leave it in place.
However, campaigners want more openness and are calling on government to require schools to inform parents and teachers of their asbestos management systems, something America has done since 1986. Speaking on Action Mesothelioma Day, which took place last Friday (July 1), AiS spokeswoman Julie Winn said: “If we are ever to solve this problem that still contaminates our school infrastructure, a policy of complete openness is essential and must be introduced now and without delay."
In America, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act requires schools to audit their ACMs and development management strategies, but also compels school authorities to regularly communicate these plans to every parent and teacher.
Ms Winn added: “The government's concern appears to be that if the public understands the nature of the problem they're only going to panic and want all asbestos removed from every school, which the government appears to believe is too high a price.
“This concern is exaggerated: the panic has not happened in the US. We are campaigning for effective asbestos management and progressive, not immediate, removal."
Around 14,000 primary and secondary schools were built in the 30-year period after 1945 when the use of asbestos was at its peak. ACMs are commonly found in partition walls, window surrounds, lagging and ceiling panels. Fibres and dust can be released if structures are not well maintained or sometimes if doors or windows are slammed.
Campaigners point to an incident in March when a hydrogen balloon exploded during a chemistry demonstration in a primary school shaking asbestos dust from ceiling panels onto pupils.
Ms Winn, who is also chair of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, said: “In the past 30 years, almost 230 teachers have died of mesothelioma but more than 60 per cent of those deaths have occurred in just the last decade. The trend here is accelerating."
In December, answering a Parliamentary question from Annette Brook MP, who chairs the AiS group, schools minister Nick Gibb said that the government had no plans to carry out a programme of asbestos removal.
There are further concerns after changes to health and safety rules. In March, after Lord Young's review of health and safety regulations, the government said that “low-risk environments", which include schools, would no longer be automatically inspected by the HSE. Michael Lees, a member of the AiS whose wife, a teacher, died from mesothelioma 11 years ago, says this is a mistake.
Mr Lees points to HSE figures from 2009 which show that after an asbestos management survey of all local authorities in England, 45 were targeted for inspection. Of these, 32 required formal advice on improvements, 10 required enforcement action, and 18 improvement notices and one prohibition notice were issued.
A HSE statement in response to Headteacher Update's enquiries said: “One aspect of (the health and safety reforms) is an expectation that HSE will devote less resource to the inspection of lower risk premises, such as schools, as compared with those in the high hazard industries. However, inspections are not HSE's sole contact with local authorities and schools, and the policy statement should not be interpreted as suggesting that HSE will no longer concern itself with asbestos in schools as a specific topic."
On the call for a new US-style law, the statement added: “HSE believes that the duty to manage asbestos in our domestic legislation places appropriate legal duties on those responsible for the maintenance and repair of school buildings.
“HSE does not enforce any health and safety legislation that requires a school or local authority to inform parents about the presence of asbestos in a school. Parents can, of course, contact their school or local authority to request information about the presence of ACMs in a school."
A Department for Education spokesman emphasised that the existing Control of Asbestos Regulations already require schools and local authorities to identify the location and condition of asbestos in their buildings.
The spokesman added: “We commissioned the James Review to set out long-term plans for school building and capital investment to make sure it targets schools in the greatest disrepair – we will respond in full in due course."
It comes as a £20,000 online asbestos e-training resource is to go live in September. It will be free for school staff and will provide basic training and documentation.