The fact that our schools contain high levels of asbestos is not in dispute, but the Department for Education remains unwilling to accept that the continuing presence of asbestos poses a significant danger to staff and pupils.
A recent survey of school buildings commissioned by the government, reportedly costing £20 million, specifically excluded asbestos. The General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers described the omission as “shameful” and expressed concerns that many children could develop mesothelioma in later life due to the long latency period of this aggressive disease.
School teachers also at great risk
Reports of teachers succumbing to the deadly effects of asbestos inhalation continue. Elizabeth Belt’s long career in teaching resulted in her death from mesothelioma. This type of cancer attacks the linings of the lungs, and is known to result from inhalation of asbestos dust and fibres.
Mrs Belt’s long career as a primary school teacher began in 1968, ending in 1995. During this time she pinned children’s artwork to partition walls that contained asbestos, and was subject to years of exposure in doing so.
During the inquest into her death, it emerged that damage to corridor walls could also have released asbestos fibres, and that classrooms seemed “a bit dusty.” In those days, the dangers of asbestos were not widely known, but with such wide use in the building industry asbestos posed a significant risk to health.
A “public health disaster”
The coroner ruled that Mrs Belt died from an industrial disease, malignant mesothelioma, after ingesting asbestos at various schools during her career. Director of Services from Mesothelioma UK, Liz Darlison, expressed her concerns about the ongoing dangers within our homes and workplaces:
“This is a preventable, currently incurable, occupational disease. Many of our schools, public buildings and homes still contain asbestos and we owe it to future generations to address this public health disaster now.”
Post-war pre-fabricated buildings
A former teacher in Hampshire, who is suffering from mesothelioma, is bringing a civil case against the local county council. Paul Crabtree taught in the same pre-fab classroom for most of his career, between 1972 and 1982.
Having previously suffered multiple myeloma, Mr Crabtree went on to develop mesothelioma. He commented:
“The wisdom at the time was that if you left the asbestos alone it was all right – but I have been affected by it.”
It is still commonly thought that if left undisturbed, asbestos is fairly safe, but the normal wear and tear within a school environment means that greater damage can unwittingly be done to the infrastructure.
The general association of asbestos-related disease with factories and other industrial work makes cases such as these even more alarming. Anyone working in older buildings is potentially at risk of breathing in asbestos particles, and many groups are campaigning for a structured plan of asbestos removal.
In fact, an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health has already called for immediate action to remove asbestos from our workplaces.