Asbestos Hazard in UK Schools
The campaign to tackle asbestos contamination in thousands of UK schools is gathering momentum. On February 15, 2008, ITN News (shown on mainstream UK TV) featured two segments about hazardous conditions in "system built or prefabricated schools. Half of all UK schools were constructed by this method and those built between 1945 and 1980 contain large amounts of asbestos.1 The use of inadequately sealed asbestos insulation board to fireproof steelwork in these schools constitutes an imminent danger to those who work in and use these buildings. Tests conducted in Hay Lane School in North London showed high levels of contamination which, as one expert warned, could result in 1 in 1,500 children contracting a fatal asbestos-related disease. The situation in this school was, said the reporter, quite common.2 The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) replied to these broadcasts by issuing a Press Statement in which it admitted that there was the potential for asbestos fibres to be released in particular circumstances in CLASP (system built) schools, but that actions had been taken to address the problem at Hay Lane School and elsewhere.3
The HSE's reassurances did not reassure. On February 20, 2008, this issue was raised at a meeting of the House of Commons Asbestos Sub-Committee. MP Michael Clapham, Chair of this group, announced plans to write to Ed Balls, the Secretary of State, to recommend that the Asbestos in Schools Campaign so unceremoniously scrapped in 2004 be reinstated. There was widespread support at the meeting for government action to convene a Parliamentary Select Committee to take evidence and report on the general issue of asbestos in schools.
UK teaching unions are extremely concerned about the lack of action on asbestos and are calling for a speedy response to this problem within the education sector. Steve Sinnott, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Europe's largest teaching union, wrote to the Asbestos Sub-Committee:
There is now an urgent need for a strategic health and safety forum including employers, the DCSF and teacher and school staff organisations in order to address the issue of effective and adequate management of asbestos in all schools.4
Other teaching unions are also concerned about the serious nature of this problem. Philip Parkin, the General Secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT), condemns government inaction saying:
There has been no official assessment of the extent of the asbestos problem in schools most staff working in schools do not know the locations of asbestos in their schools and there is no Health and Safety Executive guidance compelling schools to tell staff and parents PAT believes there is a right-to-know.5
This month, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) will present a motion at its annual conference asking the Government to conduct asbestos surveys of all educational establishments; the union will also be urging the removal of asbestos from all school buildings by 2010. According to ATL General Secretary Dr. Mary Bousted:
There is still too little information about asbestos. We don't know how many schools still contain asbestos, so most teachers have little idea of whether they, or their pupils, are being exposed to it.6
Dr. Bousted feels that the Building Schools for the Future program is a perfect vehicle for tackling the issue of asbestos contamination.
Campaigner Michael Lees feels that progress is being made but warns against complacency saying:
It is true that, finally, some notice is being taken of the serious nature of the problem posed by asbestos in schools. On Action Mesothelioma Day, I was privileged to take part in a meeting held in Manchester where the tragic impact of asbestos on local people was clearly visible: so many injured people and so many grieving families attended the rally organized by the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victim Support Group. The use of asbestos within Britain has left us with a dangerous legacy; unless, we take urgent and effective steps to deal with these problems, many more generations will suffer from the debilitating and fatal diseases caused by hazardous exposures to asbestos.
March 3, 2008