Last reviewed 25 February 2013

Asbestos was known as the miracle mineral, being fairly cheap, strong, virtually indestructible, fireproof and having excellent insulating qualities. As far as the construction industry was concerned, it was indeed the wonder material, says Michael Evans.

Background

Asbestos was one of the most widely used building materials from the late 1940s through to the 1990s. Its use was widespread, not only in the building industry. When Kent introduced its first filtered cigarettes in 1952, crocidolite asbestos was used in “Micronite” filters for the next four years.

While there was some evidence suggesting the dangers of asbestos exposure, these concerns were not taken particularly seriously and the safety of the various products and uses were not questioned.

It was only in the 1960s that concerns began to be raised after large numbers of people, such as former shipyard workers, began to die of lung disease. Considerable quantities of asbestos had been used in shipbuilding and a link was identified. It also became apparent that once fibres had been inhaled, it could take a considerable number of years before any symptoms of disease began to appear. In other words, it was rather like having a time bomb ticking away inside the chest.

By 1997, asbestos was being used in around 3000 different products. Its uses in the construction industry included:

  • for the lagging and insulation of pipes and boilers

  • as insulating boards for thermal insulation, fire protection, partitioning or ducting

  • as a component of some ceiling tiles and floor tiles

  • for bricks, roofing, guttering and pipes

  • for use in textured coatings.

The facts

Asbestos kills about 4500 people every year and there are four main diseases caused by asbestos.

  1. Mesothelioma, which is always fatal.

  2. Lung cancer, which is usually fatal.

  3. Asbestosis, which can be very debilitating but is not always fatal.

  4. Diffuse pleural thickening, which is not fatal.

The TUC reports that almost 2500 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the UK each year. The number is expected to rise by between 100 and 120 a year until at least 2015, by which time it should begin to tail off in line with the reduction in the use of asbestos since the 1970s.

In schools

Although asbestos has now largely been banned, a considerable amount of asbestos still remains in buildings that we use regularly. It is highly likely that asbestos-containing materials will be present in any school that was built before 2000, and that around 75% of UK schools will inevitably contain asbestos in some form or other.

A worrying fact is that in the past 10 years, more than 140 teachers have died from mesothelioma. This is a number that has increased by over 300% in the last 20 years. In addition, it is reasonable to suppose that asbestos exposure has also led or will lead to the early deaths of school cleaners, administrative staff, caretakers, cooks and kitchen staff.

The number of children who have been infected is unknown, but estimates in the US suggest that for every teacher who dies, nine former pupils will experience an early death in adulthood as a result of their exposure.

According to the TUC, children exposed to asbestos are five times more likely to develop mesothelioma than adult teachers in the same environment, and a five-year-old child is five times more likely to develop mesothelioma by the age of 80 than a teacher aged 30.

In all fairness, much of the asbestos in schools will not do any damage and only becomes dangerous if it is disturbed. For instance, an asbestos jacket that is insulating a hot water tank will not do anybody any harm, provided that it is completely sealed. However, if this cover is disturbed in any way and asbestos fibres are allowed to escape into the air, it can become highly dangerous.

Similarly, undisturbed asbestos panels that have been used to insulate walls are quite safe, but if a school caretaker drills holes in the wall to hang pictures, fibres can escape and become a danger to everyone.

A problem is that these fibres are so tiny that they are invisible to the naked eye. They can be inhaled and nobody is any the wiser. Once they get into the lungs, they remain there for 30, 40, 50 years, or even longer. Over a long period of time, the asbestos fibres cause healthy cells in the lungs to become cancerous, usually with fatal results.

A serious issue is that a great many schools were built in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when asbestos was a highly favoured building material..

Current situation

A recent fire in a Leicestershire school damaged the asbestos roof insulation and no proper assessment could be made of damage to the classrooms until the whole site was decontaminated. In another case, 900 pupils from a Welsh school had to be sent home after asbestos was discovered in airborne particles.

One of the main problems is that many school buildings are showing their age and are in desperate need of refurbishment, but if and when asbestos is discovered, its removal is a specialist and highly expensive process and it cannot be done when the pupils are on the premises. The only answer is to close the school.

The current requirement for schools is that a “dutyholder” is responsible for ensuring that risk of asbestos exposure is effectively managed. In the maintained sector, this responsibility will lie with the local authority. For voluntary-aided and foundation schools, the governing body will be responsible; while for independent schools and academies, it will be the proprietors, governors or trustees.

Often the dutyholder will delegate the responsibility to someone within the school. There will be a duty to carry out a survey of all parts of the building to determine if there are materials containing asbestos in the school; how much there is; where it is and the nature of its condition.

This should all be recorded in an asbestos register and this must be available to anyone who is likely to work on, or disturb, these materials.

It should be understood that all types of asbestos can pose a degree of risk, and old asbestos presents a greater risk if it is disturbed or damaged. There is no safe level of exposure and even relatively low levels of exposure to asbestos dust can increase the risk of mesothelioma.

The future

Obviously, the ultimate goal is to completely remove asbestos from all schools, but this is not a realistic option, certainly not in the short term. In the meantime, the Welsh Government is to carry out a national audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools. It is felt that only this will make it possible to allocate appropriate resources to target the schools most at risk.

For various reasons, there are no immediate signs of this happening in England. For now, all that English schools can do is to remain vigilant, endeavour to manage the risk, and hope for the best.