The Presence of Asbestos in School and College Buildings Continues to Pose a Potential Health Risk to Children and Local Authority Employees; The UK Government is Urged to Take Steps to Deal With the Problem

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Winston Solicitors discuss the potential health risks caused by asbestos that is still present in many UK schools. The Government and Local Authorities are urged to act in order to minimse the dangers.

In view of the uncertainty regarding whether there is a safe level of exposure to asbestos, questions should surely be put to the government as to why it has no plans to improve the education and guidance supplied to Local Authorities on safely managing the asbestos in schools

It is now becoming an all too familiar sight in local newspapers that a local teacher or school caretaker has died from an "asbestos cancer". The term "asbestos cancer" is one commonly adopted by the press when referring to the terminal disease mesothelioma.

In excess of 95% of cases of mesothelioma the cause of the disease is exposure to asbestos dust or fibres. Mesothelioma is a form of cancer which occurs in the lining of the lung and less commonly the peritoneum. It can develop between 15 to 50 years after the initial asbestos exposure, however once it develops it is a very aggressive type of cancer.

The scientific view is that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, that is, there is no recognised threshold of exposure to asbestos below which exposure could be said to be safe. This fact has recently been underpinned by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Governments have known of the health risks of asbestos since the 1930s, and the first safety law specifically focusing on asbestos was made in 1931.

Between 1945 and 1975 when the use of asbestos in building materials was at its greatest 13,000 schools were built and also many other schools were refurbished and extended. Many of the new school buildings were made from prefabricated panels to reduce the financial cost and increase the speed of the school building works. The full extent of asbestos use in school buildings is not known or it has not been made public. The HSE commented that the schools built between 1945-1975 contain large amounts of asbestos in their structure.

Asbestos was used extensively in the construction of schools, for example, as a general building board, and as insulation on steel structures in prefabricated buildings, and also in ceilings and walls. Throughout most of the 20th century asbestos was used to insulate boilers, hot water pipework and electrical installations. As the Department of the Environment has commented asbestos insulation deteriorates with age, it disintegrates and asbestos fibres fray and fall.

Decades of under-funding has resulted in schools being inadequately maintained. The Department for Education and Science (DfES) and the HSE have not organised an audit of the full extent and condition of asbestos in schools, and it has been left to be considered on a local basis. The schools themselves have limited budgets, and there is a concern that governors and headteachers have not been properly informed or instructed on the asbestos hazard. Schools have been left to manage the asbestos in the fabric of their buildings, however there has been a lack of effective guidance from the DfES.

It is believed that during the period 2002-2004, 31 primary and secondary teachers died of mesothelioma. This figure more than doubles if teachers' assistants, higher education and childcare are included. When looking back over previous periods the number of victims of mesothelioma appears to be continually rising.

Stephen Laycock, of Winston Solicitors Leeds a specialist in industrial disease claims, expressed his concern at the apparent lack of planning and funding. "In view of the uncertainty regarding whether there is a safe level of exposure to asbestos, questions should surely be put to the government as to why it has no plans to improve the education and guidance supplied to Local Authorities on safely managing the asbestos in schools".

There is also the important issue concerning the provision of funding to safely remove asbestos. In the past, governments have spent millions of pounds removing asbestos from Westminster Palace and government buildings in London. However the funds have not even been made available for a centralised system of auditing asbestos in schools.

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