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Asbestos in schools - new Parliamentary focus

By Laura Morrison, an asbestos-related disease lawyer at Irwin Mitchell

The announcement that a committee of MPs will investigate the dangers of asbestos in schools is hugely welcome. The committee is expert to report next year.

The inquiry comes amongst startling statistics about the rate of mesothelioma deaths in primary school teachers. Since 2001, the Office for National Statistics revealed that at least 305 teaching and education professionals have died from mesothelioma, a cancer almost exclusively caused by asbestos since 2001 but the incidence is likely higher as the occupational statistics do not include mesothelioma deaths above the age of 74.

History of asbestos in school construction

Historically, asbestos materials were widely used in the construction of buildings.  Usage peaked between 1945 and 1975 before declining until they were finally banned in the UK in 1999. It is widely recognised that depending on the age of the school estate, the majority of school buildings (approximately 80 per cent) contain asbestos.  Many older school buildings are thought to be beyond their design life and as time passes and materials degrade, the risk increases. Remaining CLASP school buildings are thought to be particularly problematic for this reason.

Whilst no mortality figures are available for children exposed to asbestos at school and there are numerous difficulties in estimating the incidences, it is thought that there have been at least as many deaths of children as of teachers.

Increased risks in children

The Department of Health’s Committee on Carcinogenicity recognised that children have an increased lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma compared to adults if exposed to a given dose of asbestos. 

Their increased life expectancy as compared to adults means there is more time for the latent disease to develop and for every decade earlier in life you are exposed to asbestos, the risk of mesothelioma doubles.   

Whilst asbestos materials only become dangerous when disturbed or damaged, poor structural maintenance in schools as well as vandalism and even normal every day classroom activities make them more vulnerable to the release of respirable asbestos fibres than other buildings. 

Pupils and teachers are unlikely to have any specialist knowledge of the dangers of asbestos materials or how to recognise them.  Their exposures are often incidental, indirect or of a background nature and low level.  Accordingly establishing liability in a civil claim is particularly challenging and obtaining early specialist legal advice from a highly experienced asbestos solicitor is vital for anyone diagnosed.

Mesothelioma caused by schools exposure

I recently acted in a successful case against a local authority on behalf of a man diagnosed with mesothelioma at the age of just 51 following exposure to asbestos fibres as a teenage pupil at a school in West Sussex between 1978 and 1983. 

He had encountered asbestos fibres from insulated pipework when hiding out with friends in an unlocked boiler room under the stage in his school building during wet break times.  The asbestos insulation was also present on pipework in the sports hall store room and tragically, his PE teacher had also died from mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure at the school. Helpfully, my firm had the specialist knowledge of the school as we had acted in both cases.

Duty to manage

In spite of the duties imposed on those responsible for schools under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 to manage asbestos in schools, there is evidence that many of those duty holders do not fully understand their responsibilities or how to fulfil them. 

The theme of UK regulatory policy up until now has been a duty to manage asbestos materials in situ rather than remove it and many are critical of this approach and advocate for a policy of phased removal, particularly in respect of school buildings.  Other European countries such as the Netherlands have taken a much more pro-active approach to asbestos removal from schools.

The recently announced inquiry coincides with a Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into how the HSE manages the continued presence of asbestos in public buildings more widely and I, as a specialist asbestos lawyer, welcome the renewed parliamentary focus on the strategies for management of asbestos to guarantee the future safety of both teachers and pupils.  

With a very large percentage of schools still containing some asbestos materials, the urgency of this important work is obvious to all.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people and their families diagnosed with mesothelioma and other diseases at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section.