Teacher's death sparks renewed calls for total asbestos removal

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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As another former teacher dies from mesothelioma, a petition has been launched calling on the government to rethink its policy of asbestos management ahead of removal. Pete Henshaw reports

A petition calling for action on asbestos in schools has been launched after the death of another teacher from the cancer mesothelioma.

Primary school teacher Sue Stephens passed away on June 26. She had long believed that she contracted the cancer as a result of exposure to asbestos during her 30-year career in education.

With 86 per cent of UK schools containing asbestos, experts fear that hundreds of staff and former students could be dying from mesothelioma because of exposure to asbestos fibres while at school.

The petition has been launched by Mrs Stephens’ daughter Lucie and is calling for the complete removal of asbestos from schools by 2028. It was launched last week – coinciding with the annual Action Mesothelioma Day on Friday (July 1) – and has already amassed more than 4,550 signatures.

Current government policy is for asbestos to be regularly inspected and managed in situ rather than being removed. However, campaigners on the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) say that much asbestos in schools is now old and deteriorating, increasing the risk that staff and pupils will be exposed to fibres or dust from damaged asbestos-containing materials, which when inhaled can cause mesothelioma.

More than 220 teachers in England died of mesothelioma between 2003 and 2012. This includes 17 in 2013 and 22 in 2012.

Figures for school support staff are harder to establish. A key problem is that the long latency period before mesothelioma develops means that it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly when sufferers were exposed.

However, in 2013, the Education Select Committee heard evidence estimating that between 40 and 60 people a year could be dying as a result of asbestos exposure in schools. It is difficult to know how many children might have been affected, but studies in the US have estimated that for every one teacher who dies from mesothelioma, nine former pupils will die in adulthood from their exposure as a child.

The petition’s call for asbestos removal echoes recommendations made by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health in 2012, which found that much asbestos in schools is badly maintained. The petition is also calling for a duty to be placed on schools to produce an annual asbestos report for parents and staff. This policy is already in place in America.

The petition states: “The government must introduce and implement a policy for the phased removal of all asbestos from schools to be completed by 2028, starting with the most dangerous asbestos. MPs recommended this in 2012 but no action has been taken.

“Parents have been kept in the dark about asbestos risks for too long. We want every school in the UK to have to produce an annual report about the type and condition of any asbestos on the premises and share this with all parents and staff. Every child’s potential exposure to asbestos at school must be recorded and shared with parents.”

However, a review of asbestos in schools policy by the Department for Education (DfE) last year, The Management of Asbestos in Schools, rules out complete removal. It states that it will be allocating £1.4 billion a year over three years for school buildings, which could be used for asbestos removal.

However, it adds: “Where asbestos-containing materials are found to be at risk of disturbance, it is important that steps are taken to make them safe, for example by encapsulating or sealing the asbestos-containing materials.”

Supporting the petition, John McClean, chair of JUAC and secretariat of the Asbestos in Schools campaign group, said: “Tragically there has been yet another death resulting from asbestos exposure in schools. The continuing presence of asbestos in so many of our schools is a disgrace. Effective government action to tackle this scourge is long overdue and our children and school staff deserve better.”

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, added: “It’s scandalous that every year teachers and support staff are dying from asbestos-related illnesses because they have been exposed to asbestos in school. The government must listen and start a phased removal of all asbestos in schools so that no more children or teachers are exposed to asbestos and risk dying from this entirely preventable disease.”

Lucie Stephens said she had promised her mother before she passed away that she would continue to campaign on this issue.

She added: “I’ve lost my darling mum to this terrible disease. As a parent I need to be sure that my school-age daughter is not being put at risk simply by going to school.

“We can’t let more of our children and teachers die from this entirely preventable disease. Nicky Morgan (the education secretary) must prioritise the removal of all asbestos from all our schools.”

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