Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Time for a National Asbestos Eradication Plan

In the summer of 2013 I wrote about Australia's attitude to asbestos. Specifically, I mentioned that on 3 June 2013 the Australian Federal Parliament passed legislation to implement the Asbestos Safety and Eradication bill. In accordance with this, the National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Awareness and Removal 2013 - 2018 (NSPAAR) was released by the Australian Government on 31 July 2013.

I mention this again now because I believe it is high time for Britain to adopt the Australian example.

The Australian blueprint

NSPAAR is the first scheme of its kind. It establishes a national approach to asbestos eradication, handling and awareness in Australia, the aim being to prevent exposure to asbestos fibres in order to eliminate asbestos-related disease once and for all. It is underpinned by annual operational elements which will be approved by the federal minister with responsibility for workplace relations.

Danger Asbestos in this Area

All in all, NSPAAR marks an historic step, with Australia becoming the first nation to progress tangibly towards the complete elimination of asbestos-related disease. It is something of which Australians can rightly be proud - and surely it amounts to a blueprint that we in Britain could and should follow?

Report by UK Committee on Carcinogenicity

This seems all the more pressing given the findings of the UK Committee on Carcinogenicity, which published a report in June 2013. The report cited findings that children exposed to asbestos are more vulnerable to the development of mesothelioma than adults. Further, the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is predicted to be around 3.5 times greater for a child exposed to asbestos aged five compared to an adult first exposed at age 25, and five times greater for a child exposed aged five compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.

The Department for Education's own guidance states that more than three quarters of schools in England have at least some buildings that contain asbestos. There has been no survey into the condition of this asbestos, however, so the scale of the problem has never been specifically addressed.

This report motivated a group of MPs to table and support an EDM on 10 March 2013 which welcomed the Department for Education's policy review for the management of asbestos in schools. The EDM also cited the evidence given to the Education Select Committee by a leading epidemiologist that between 200 and 300 people could die each year from exposure to asbestos experienced as a child at school. The motion called on the government to look to Australia and its National Strategic Plan for asbestos as a blueprint to establish long-term strategic policies for the eradication of asbestos disease and to set systems, timelines and processes for the safe removal of asbestos materials from public and commercial buildings - with priority being given to schools.

APIL's endorsement

The need for a long-term approach most recently gained support from APIL in its excellent and thought provoking response to Department of Education's review. This was published last month and it's well worth repeating:

The seriousness of asbestos exposure appears to be under-appreciated, because the effects of such exposure do not develop until many years later. As such, the current government policies in place are piecemeal and largely involve asbestos remaining in situ with little regard for whether it would actually be safer (and indeed more economic in the long run) for it to be removed. There is often a lack of clarity as to which body is ultimately responsible for asbestos management in the school in question. It is even unclear, for example, which government is responsible for asbestos management for schools in Wales.

The short term outlook and lack of clarity over responsibility mean that the current policies are unsatisfactory, and will put children, and those who work in schools, at risk. There must be a movement from a reactive to a proactive approach. This must be a co-ordinated approach for the whole of the United Kingdom.

As an organisation that promotes safety against hazards, APIL supports the call for:

  • Clearer and greater central responsibility for tackling the problem of asbestos in schools;
  • Investment into locating asbestos, and into air sampling to gain necessary information about the scale of the problem. The location of asbestos should be registered and should be made available for those in school. Where appropriate, asbestos can be left in situ or encapsulated, but if necessary - where there is dilapidation, for example - the asbestos should be taken away safely before it is accidentally disturbed and there is a serious risk to health; 
  • Reintroduction of proactive inspections for schools; 
  • Mandatory training and raised awareness of asbestos for those who work in schools; 
  • A long-term plan for phased removal of asbestos needs to be carefully considered. Priority should be given to those schools where the asbestos is in the most dangerous or damaged condition. 

The DoE has an opportunity to lead the way to a better future

Let us hope this opportunity is not missed by the present UK government. The DoE can be the start of a significant, necessary and overdue strategy to protect the next generation and reduce risk, starting as it should in our schools and with our children.