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Campaign groups warn about asbestos in schools

The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) is a group made up of trade unions in the education sector, and campaigns against the presence of asbestos in UK schools. Originally formed in 2010, their aim is to protect teachers, support staff and children attending school from the threat of asbestos.

With the latency period for asbestos-related disease being up to sixty years, children could develop life-threatening illness at any point during their adult life. The group has levied criticism at the government for failing to remove asbestos from educational establishments, claiming that it is still present in 75% of our schools.

Exposure to asbestos can result in a range of serious illnesses including asbestosis, mesothelioma and other lung cancers – all life-threatening or life-limiting for the victim.

Why is the government reluctant to remove asbestos from schools?

Parliamentary view is that asbestos poses no danger if it remains intact, and is not disturbed by building work. The government does not advocate the systematic removal of asbestos-containing materials from schools and colleges, preferring instead to control what is already there.

There has been government action up to a point, however:

  • The Department for Education has released their Asbestos Awareness Guidance for UK Schools and Colleges, providing more information on recognising and dealing with the substance.
  • The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety has lobbied for an asbestos eradication bill to be introduced, so that a systematic asbestos removal programme can begin.

Chair of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, Julie Winn, supported their report, ‘The Asbestos Crisis – Why Britain needs an eradication law’:

“JUAC calls on all political parties to support the proposal for a new law on asbestos with a clear timetable for the eradication of asbestos and for them to work together to make all UK schools and colleges safe from asbestos.”

Devastating diagnoses and alarming statistics

Possibly the most serious diagnosis in relation to asbestos exposure is that of pleural mesothelioma. An incurable form of cancer, it develops as a result of inhaling asbestos fibres and attacks the lining of the lungs, leaving the victim with severe breathing difficulties.

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics show that 291 school teachers have died of mesothelioma since 1980, with 22 teachers dying in 2012 alone.¹ An activity as simple as pinning up children’s artwork on boarding containing asbestos is said to have caused the death of teacher, Elizabeth Belt, in 2015.

The small pin-holes released deadly asbestos dust on a regular basis over a long period of time. A statement read at the inquest into Mrs Belt’s death from mesothelioma, referred to the continuous turnover of paintings and written work on the boarding at one of the schools where she had worked:

“There were large sections of boarding where the children’s work was displayed and there would be a change of work every two to three weeks ….. There was considerable use of a staple gun.”

JUAC continues to campaign for a national strategic plan for asbestos removal in our schools, with a target timescale for complete removal being 2028.