Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Asbestos in schools must be tackled

Once upon a time asbestos was known as the 'magic mineral'. The name arose because of its ability to withstand fire, a property that contributed to the huge use of asbestos by manufacturers and builders in the 19th century. But as the 20th century progressed, so too did the flipside to the so-called magic of asbestos. In fact, by the 1970s the bitter truth about asbestos became widely known: it was a killer.

The inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause serious and fatal illness. Malignant lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis (a type of pneumoconiosis) are commonly seen among those who have been exposed to asbestos dust. Knowledge of these conditions led to the banning of blue and brown asbestos materials in Britain in 1985. Later, in 1999, the import, sale and second-hand reuse of white asbestos was prohibited, and then, in 2006, the European Union banned all use of asbestos as well as the extraction, manufacture and processing of asbestos products.

Can we assume, then, that asbestos is no longer a problem in the UK?

The elephant in the room
Far from it. Asbestos is as much an issue today as it was 100 years ago, when its carcinogenic properties first became known. Each year some 4,000 people die as a result of past exposure to asbestos. Often enough, health problems take 40 years to manifest themselves after first exposure. Little can be done once a diagnosis is made, with most patients dying within 18 months. Victims can find themselves in a doubly invidious position, whether because employers or insurers are untraceable or because of the time it takes for a legal claim to be resolved.

But there is another problem. It is one that potentially affects society's most vulnerable group - children. As Cenric Clement-Evans, who sits on the executive committee of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), says: "Asbestos in schools is the elephant in the room."  

Clement-Evans is a senior solicitor with Welsh law firm NewLaw Solicitors. He has done much to highlight the dangers of asbestos in schools, not least in helping to generate momentum for the signature of this petition. Its aim is laudable: to call for "the National Assembly for Wales to urge the Welsh Government to put measures in place to ensure that parents and guardians of children across Wales can easily access information about the presence and management of asbestos in all school buildings."

Children like to disturb things
The reason? As a recent BBC programme revealed, there are 1,514 schools in Wales containing asbestos (which equates to 85% of Welsh schools). Government policy is that, so long as the asbestos is in good condition and not likely to be disturbed, it is better to manage it for the remaining life of a school rather than remove it. This, in turn, means that most of the asbestos stays put in schools, where it will have to be managed long into the future.

But for Clement-Evans and many others, this isn't good enough. How can we be sure that children - by their nature disruptive, unpredictable and spontaneous – will behave in such a way as not to disturb asbestos in their schools? Even if dire examples such as Cwmcarn School (which, last October, a specialist contractor advised should be closed because of asbestos) are the exception, a risk is taken each day that children attend a school which is known to have asbestos on the premises.

Moreover, last year's report on asbestos in schools by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety found a number of additional reasons for disquiet. These range from insufficient awareness among staff and school workers of the dangers of slamming doors (doing so releases untoward levels of amosite fibres) and the all too frequent failure to identify asbestos-containing materials in schools. And most significantly, the All-Party report found that government policy is suspect because: "the asbestos is often not in good condition, or it is unsealed and hidden. Tests have shown it can be disturbed by normal school activity and asbestos fibres released over the course of many years without anyone being aware of that. No doubt [the] schools thought that they were managing their asbestos safely, whereas in reality they were not."

Changes must be made
For Clement-Evans, as for the All-Party Group, a number of key solutions should be adopted by the government. The phased removal of asbestos from schools should be implemented, there should be enhanced training and awareness of asbestos risks and there should be openness and transparency, so that parents are not in the dark about levels of asbestos in schools. Schools should also be inspected regularly and a comprehensive database of findings maintained.

Needless to say, what Clement-Evans has commendably highlighted as a problem in Wales applies just as much in the rest of Britain.

More than 228 school teachers have died of mesothelioma since 1980, with 140 dying in the past ten years. None of us want our children to join those unwelcome statistics. We must all do what we can to press for change.