Hidden Killer

Are Welsh schoolchildren and teachers sitting on a health time-bomb?
It is a frightening question and one which has been asked increasingly loudly throughout the last few months.
The concern relates to asbestos in our school buildings.
Between the 1960s and 1980s asbestos was widely used in the construction industry, in particular for roofing, spray coating, pipe-lagging, insulation boards and asbestos cement. Any building built or refurbished before 2000 is likely to contain asbestos.
The Health and Safety Executive estimates that half a million non-domestic buildings in the UK feature asbestos.
This figure includes many Welsh school buildings. Indeed, a Freedom of Information Act request earlier this revealed that more than eight of ten school buildings in Wales contains some sort of asbestos.
But how dangerous is it and how worried should teachers, pupils and parents be?
Fibres of asbestos dust cannot be removed from the lung once they have been breathed in. Their inhalation is linked to two forms of mesothelioma (affecting the lining of the lungs and of the abdomen), to lung cancer, asbestosis (in which the lungs develop scaring) and an inflammation of the lung called pleural thickening.
Leading the concerns is respected occupational hygienist Robin Howie. Back in April in the education newspaper SecEd, I reported Mr Howie’s appearance at a conference hosted by Nick Ramsey AM at the National Assembly for Wales.
Mr Howie claimed a hidden “horror story” was unfolding in UK schools with rates of mesothelioma “a factor of ten higher” in male teachers than in other people who do not work with asbestos. He said rates of mesothelioma in female teachers were “higher to a factor of two-and-a-half”.
He added: “These are significantly higher figures than we expect. And if the teachers are showing significantly high on the statistics then what about the children?
“I think the teaching statistics are the tip of the iceberg. For every teacher exposed, then we have 20-30 children.
“In about two-thirds of mesothelioma we cannot identify where the exposure to asbestos occurred. What we do know is that most of those people would have been in school. I think there is a significant risk of mesothelioma in schools containing asbestos.”
Mr Howie repeated these concerns in a recent edition of the ITV Wales current affairs programme Wales This Week.
For that programme, ‘Hidden Killer’, I also interviewed Tim Cox, of the NASUWT, who said the dangers of asbestos were causing increasing concern for union members.
“I think this is one of the most important issues we’ve ever had to deal with,” he stated. “We are talking about the long-term health of the population of Wales. We are talking about the teachers and support staff in schools at the moment but we are also talking about the children, the children of Wales, over the next 10 to 20 years, who could be affected by this terrible, terrible disease.”
Mr Cox is demanding the removal of all asbestos from schools as part of the Welsh Assembly Government’s plan to renovate their buildings.
However, the Health and Safety Executive’s policy is to advocate the safe containment of asbestos rather than its removal. The Welsh Local Government Association agrees, stating that “the removal of asbestos would be likely to raise the level of asbestos fibres within the air”.
The HSE’s own figures show that between 1980 and 1985 twenty-one teachers, lecturers and school workers died from mesothelioma. Twenty years later that figure had risen to 92.
However, it questions Mr Howie’s claims about rates of mesothelioma in teachers. It has carried out its own research through epidemiologist Julian Peto.
“The research by Professor Julian Peto, who is a world authority, suggests that the increased levels of deaths, because there is an increased level of at the moment across all those groups, not just teachers, suggests it may be linked to the increased environmental concentration of asbestos in the 60s and 70s which is when people will have got their exposure,” Steve Coldrick, of the HSE, told me.
“There are examples and I’m sure there will continue to be occasionally examples of people in schools being exposed from time to time to either very low levels or occasional levels of asbestos. The important thing to understand is that all the evidence indicates that does not mean either adults or the children are likely to develop these dreadful diseases.”
Asbestos expert Emma Corfield, of Core Surveys, said the majority of asbestos products in schools would be “low risk”, such as asbestos cement, floor tiles and Artex. “It’s when you start talking about the asbestos insulation board and lagging which would probably be in about 25 per cent of schools, nearly 30 per cent, that you are looking at needing a good robust management plan,” she stated.
She said local authorities had to support head-teachers who could not be experts on asbestos as well as educators running schools.
There is no legal requirement on local education authorities to have staff dedicated to asbestos management. At least four of the LEAs questioned by Wales This Week did not have dedicated staff.
The HSE is due to relaunch its asbestos campaign on Monday. The campaign focuses on tradespeople, who make up the vast number of deaths from asbestos-related diseases.
Those whose interest is asbestos in schools believe the campaign should be turning its attention to the education sector too.

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