The recent articles in the Guardian newspaper- “ 700 English schools reported over asbestos safety concerns” (5th July) & “Britain’s death toll from asbestos at crisis level figures reveal” ( 8th July) only serve to validate the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) approach to the terrible legacy of asbestos in schools. Serious action needs to be taken now and JUAC has consistently advocated the following measures:
- The development of a planned, phased and costed programme of removal of all asbestos from schools
- Establishing a mandatory survey of all schools ensuring that it is known exactly where the asbestos is present and in what condition it is in
- Train all school staff on how asbestos should be managed in schools
- Increase resources to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and restore proactive inspections by them in schools
- Make the results of surveys available to all staff and parents of each school
The legacy of exposure to asbestos from traditional heavy industries, ship building, thermal stripping and lagging, is changing as these industries are in steep decline and the growing threat from this exposure will be in the built environment where low level, long exposure will continue to lead to asbestos related diseases such as mesothelioma.
The judgement of the HSE that asbestos is best left “in situ” if it is in a good condition is now demonstrably invalid, because comprehensive information on the condition of asbestos in schools is still not available.
In addition epidemiologists, such as Professor Peto, who suggest that it is not worth the risk in removing asbestos from schools are among the same experts who have been forecasting for over 20 years that deaths from mesothelioma will decline. Todays figures highlight just how wrong they are.
Strangely, while Peto in his TV interview presumed the risk from asbestos in schools is low, his recent research* paper actually indicates that airborne asbestos fibres released by weathering and everyday occupation of buildings may also be an important source of environmental exposure and his earlier paper in 2016** stated:’The risk from asbestos to younger people in buildings is not known but could be substantial’
At the same time Robin Howie *** has provided evidence to show that teachers are five times more likely to develop mesothelioma than those who have not been exposed to asbestos. He also showed that teachers are likely to have been exposed to airborne asbestos fibre concentrations significantly higher than typical in buildings containing asbestos in a good condition. This means schools have not been identifying and removing the unsafe asbestos that victims inhaled.
As Peto stated to the Education Select Committee in 2013: “All that matters is whether or not kids are breathing in asbestos and, until you find that out, everything else is hot air.”
The identification and removal of unsafe asbestos needs an agreed resourced and detailed plan and JUAC is calling on government to properly fund and resource the removal of asbestos from schools.
John McClean, Chair of JUAC, said “The risks to children and staff of poorly managed asbestos are very real. A phased programme of removal is the only way to begin to tackle this scourge”.
*Gilham, C; Rake, C; Hodgson, J; Darnton, A; Burdett, G; Peto Wild, J; Newton, M; Nicholson, AG; Davidson, L; Shires, M; Treasure, T; Peto, J; TIPS Collaboration; (2018) Past and current asbestos exposure and future mesothelioma risks in Britain: The Inhaled Particles Study (TIPS). International journal of epidemiology. ISSN 0300-5771 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyx276
**Pleural mesothelioma and lung cancer risks in relation to occupational history and asbestos lung burden. Clare Gilham,1 Christine Rake,1 Garry Burdett,2 Andrew G Nicholson,3 Leslie Davison,4 Angelo Franchini,1 James Carpenter,1,5 John Hodgson,6 Andrew Darnton,6 Julian Peto1
***Robin Howie Environmental health Scotland Vol29 Number 4 Winter 2017 pages34-35