Asbestos: A hidden killer

Written by: HTU | Published:

Eleven years ago, Michael Lees lost his wife, a teacher, to the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma. He is fighting for special guidance and regulations to govern asbestos management in schools. Here he presents his case

The Department for Education (DfE) estimate that more than 75 per cent of schools contain asbestos. The number is likely to be higher as, for example, about 90 per cent of schools in Wales, Greater Manchester, Kent and the North East contain asbestos. All contain chrysotile (white asbestos) and amosite (brown) was used extensively. Some schools contain crocidolite (blue).

Mesothelioma is a cancer that is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos and is always fatal. Chrysotile can cause mesothelioma but amosite is up to 100 times, and crocidolite up to 500 times, more likely to do so. There is no known threshold exposure to asbestos below which there is no risk and all exposures are cumulative and increase the likelihood of a tumour developing. Children are more vulnerable to the dangers of asbestos than adults. Because there is a long latency they will live longer for any disease to develop and it is also thought that they could be more at risk because of their physical immaturity. It is estimated that a five-year-old child is about five times more at risk of developing mesothelioma by the age of 80 than their teacher of 30.

A report commissioned by the Medical Research Council (MRC) examined the extent, type and location of asbestos in schools and concluded: “It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings.”

The MRC report assessed lifetime asbestos exposures and estimated the numbers of asbestos fibres inhaled by a child during their time at school and concluded: “Children attending schools built prior to 1975 are likely to inhale around 3 million respirable asbestos fibres...Exposure to asbestos in school may therefore constitute a significant part of total exposure.”

The report was based on asbestos being in good condition, but the school stock has not been well maintained so asbestos in many schools is not in good condition. The result is that significant levels of asbestos fibres have been released at levels far greater than estimated in the MRC report.

Early exposure

More people die from mesothelioma each year in Britain than are killed on the roads, and we have the highest mesothelioma incidence in the world. It is more than twice that of France, Germany or the USA. It is not unreasonable to assume that asbestos exposure in schools has contributed to this high incidence, as a significant proportion of the population have been exposed from a very young age.

In 1965 the Factory Inspectorate report concluded that mesothelioma could be caused by exposure at an “astonishingly slight degree”. At the same time the government were warned about the particular vulnerability of children. However the warnings were not heeded and, under pressure from the asbestos industry, schools continued to be built using large amounts of asbestos.

Between 1945 and 1975, when the use of asbestos was at its height, more than 14,000 schools were built and many others were refurbished. To fulfil the demand “system” built schools were introduced that were prefabricated with standardised design and components. Asbestos was widely used in these buildings to protect them from the serious fire risk inherent in these structures.

Asbestos insulating board (AIB) was extensively used in wall panels, ceilings, door and window surrounds, firebreaks and as cladding for structural columns. AIB normally contains amosite. All the walls and ceilings of some temporary classrooms are AIB. Ducted hot air heating cabinets contain AIB which can release asbestos fibres, and there are reports of dust from the heaters settling on classroom desks. Also damaged asbestos in storage heaters can release fibres. Tests have shown that just removing books from a classroom stationary cupboard with an unpainted AIB backing releases cumulatively significant levels. So does displaying the children’s work with drawing pins or staples. In 1987 tests were carried out in a school in London as the teachers were concerned that the boys were kicking AIB walls and slamming doors. Air tests found that significant levels of amosite fibres were ejected into the rooms even though the AIB was painted and appeared to be in good condition. Further tests were carried out in a primary school where significant levels of fibres were ejected when toilet doors were slammed. The problem arises because the reverse face of AIB is not sealed so when the wall is hit fibres are released from the back.

Government guidance

No warning was given at that time to the thousands of other schools that contain AIB. It was only after the problem was rediscovered almost 20 years later that a warning was finally issued. The tests show that, even when encased, hidden or apparently in good condition, AIB can release significant levels of amosite when children bang into walls and columns or slam doors. Guidance was then given to fill the cracks in columns, walls and skirting boards with silicone sealant, and to ensure that AIB ceiling tiles fit securely in their grid. These measures are only a temporary expedient as they do not solve the problem, they just hide it. If air can pass through a crack then so can asbestos fibres, so it is impossible to block every crack and gap. As long as there is asbestos in schools there is always the potential for fibres to enter rooms.

More than 228 school teachers have died of mesothelioma since 1980. In 1980 three school teachers died each year, but the numbers have inexorably increased to 16 a year. School caretakers, cleaners, teaching assistants and school secretaries are also dying of mesothelioma, and if they are being exposed to asbestos and dying then so are their pupils. Mesothelioma latency is so long that their deaths are recorded under the occupation they had at the time of their death, so there are no statistics that show how many pupils have subsequently died from asbestos exposure at school. In the 1980’s the USA carried out an audit of the friable asbestos in their schools and estimated that 1,000 staff and pupils would subsequently die of mesothelioma, and 90 per cent would be the subsequent deaths of pupils. In Britain that would equate, proportionately, to 2,000 subsequent deaths of pupils. That is a very serious problem but it has never been properly addressed.

The USA, in comparison, recognised the particular vulnerability of children to asbestos and in 1986 implemented stringent asbestos regulations specifically for schools. Because they assessed the scale of the problem and the risks they were able to allocate proportionate resources. Asbestos training and asbestos surveys were made mandatory and funds were provided so schools really could manage their asbestos. They also adopted a policy of openness so that each year, by law, staff and parents are told about the asbestos management in their schools. In September this year a further $30 billion has been allocated for school repairs including asbestos remediation and removal.

This country is very different. In 1986 all schools were advised to identify their asbestos and manage it, but the guidance was not mandatory so many schools failed to follow it, and it was not until the 2002 asbestos regulations that many schools started identifying their asbestos and implementing management systems. However the standards of asbestos management in many schools are poor and this has been confirmed in a recent round of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspections of schools outside local authority control. 158 inspections took place and about a third of the schools had enforcement action taken for failures in asbestos management. There were 74 breaches of the asbestos regulations for failing to identify asbestos, failing to implement a management plan and failing to train staff. This is in addition to earlier inspections of local authorities that resulted in 38 improvement notices being issued for similar failures to safely manage asbestos in their schools.

Correct training

It is most important that all members of both teaching and support staff are trained in asbestos awareness, and are informed where asbestos is in their school and what actions they have to take to prevent their pupils and themselves disturbing it. In order to make sound decisions headteachers and school governors have to be trained in asbestos awareness. They are responsible under law and so have to ensure that their staff are managing asbestos safely, and that maintenance is carried out safely. There have been cases where school authorities and headteachers have been held liable following asbestos incidents. In one case thirty windows were ripped out of their AIB surrounds using crowbars and power saws while staff and pupils looked on. The teachers then swept up the asbestos debris from their classrooms and the children returned to lessons. At his trial the headteacher said that asbestos was a complete foreign language to him.

In another case a headteacher told pupils on litter duty to clear up AIB tiles stored in a boiler house. The caretaker supervised them as they smashed them up and disposed of them. In both incidents the exposures of staff and pupils was significant, and both incidents were caused by a lack of training of the headteachers. The DfE will shortly be introducing web-based asbestos training for governors, headteachers and support staff. It will not be mandatory, but if the occupants of schools are to be protected from the dangers of asbestos it is vital that headteachers, governors and all staff take part in the training.

Government policy when schools are refurbished is: “Asbestos which is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed or damaged is better left in place and managed until the end of the life of the building.”

The policy is flawed because the government has not funded schools so that they can effectively manage their asbestos. Effective management is not a cheap option and it requires constant vigilance and a long term commitment. Even then nobody knows whether hidden asbestos is in good condition, and one cannot guarantee that a child will not slam a door or kick a wall and disturb it. In the 1980’s the Association of Metropolitan Authorities advocated a policy of identifying the most dangerous materials and progressively removing them as it is safer and, in the long run, cheaper. The Schools Capital Review is presently considering how to bring the school estate up to a safe and structurally sound condition. One of their priorities must be to identify those schools with the most dangerous asbestos materials, prioritise them for refurbishment and remove the asbestos.

• Michael Lees is a member of the DfE Asbestos in Schools Steering Group. For more information, visit

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