The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health says the presence of lethal dust fibres in school buildings is a “national scandal”.
In a new report, it warns that 75 per cent of state schools are exposing children, teachers and other staff to the carcinogenic material.
Jim Sheridan MP, Chair of the All-Party Group, said: “This is a national scandal. Urgent action is needed to prevent more pupils, teachers and other staff being exposed to this deadly killer dust. We need both far greater awareness of the risks that this material poses and a programme for its phased removal.”
The report comes after more than 140 teachers died from the rare asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma in the past 10 years, with research in the US suggesting over 100 people will die every year in the UK because of exposure at school.
US researchers suggest that for every death of a teacher from asbestos-related diseases, nine children will die. Asbestos-related diseases can take many years to develop so children are more vulnerable over their lifetime.
The Westminster All-Party Group’s report recommends the UK government should start a programme for the phased removal of asbestos from all schools, with priority given to those schools where the asbestos is considered to be most dangerous or damaged.
It also recommends a policy of openness in which parents, teachers and support staff are annually updated on the presence of asbestos in their schools and the measures that are being taken to manage it.
Welsh concerns about asbestos in schools were highlighted in April 2009 when occupational hygienist Robin Howie addressed 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: “I think the teaching statistics are the tip of the iceberg. For every teacher exposed, then we have 20-30 children.”
Mr Howie repeated these concerns in an edition of the ITV Wales current affairs programme Wales This Week.
In the same programme Tim Cox, of the NASUWT, said the dangers of asbestos was “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 demanded the removal of all asbestos from school buildings.
So what is the latest from the Welsh Government?
In answers to written Assembly questions on January 18, 2012, Wales Education Minister Leighton Andrews, said: “Asbestos is safe if undisturbed and schools should work closely with their respective local authorities to have in place appropriate health and safety plans for staff, pupils and visitors.”
He added: “Locating and dealing with asbestos in schools, including the removal if appropriate is a health and safety matter for schools and local authorities. Local authorities as the building owner and employer have a legal duty under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 to manage the risks arising from asbestos.”
Councils should know whether “any of their schools contain asbestos in some form or another”, he stated, and are “required to have asbestos surveys undertaken on all premises under their control, and implement an asbestos management system”.
However, it appears unclear as to how many Welsh schools contain asbestos.
“The current and projected categories of condition of school buildings were requested, from local authorities, as part of the revised proposals submitted to the Welsh Government in November 2011,” said Mr Andrews. “However, the level of detail, in terms of schools that may have the presence of asbestos was not considered at this stage of the process, since the written statement December 2010 related to overall outline programmes and not individual projects.”