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Government to review policies on asbestos in schools

The Government has confirmed it will review its policies on asbestos in schools once an independent advisory committee has issued its findings on the relative vulnerability of children to the substance.

Giving evidence to the Education Select Committee last week, Schools minister David Laws informed MPs of the Government’s intention to carry out a review once the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) publishes its report in May.

Speaking as a witness alongside Mr Laws, the HSE’s director of field operations, David Ashton, claimed that the Executive’s and Department for Education’s (DfE) policies in this area are working.

The latest statistics on mesothelioma show that more than 128 teachers died from the disease in the nine years from 2002 to 2010. However, Mr Ashton questioned whether teachers’ asbestos exposure could necessarily be attributed to their occupation.

He explained: “Where death certificates show “˜mesothelioma ““ teacher’, simply to go from that to work out the risk to teachers is to make quite a big mistake because the last known occupation of someone who has been exposed over 40 or 50 years of their life is not sufficient information on which to conclude that they died because they taught in schools where there was asbestos.”

Commenting on the fact that schools have been designated by the HSE as “low risk”, and will therefore no longer be subject to proactive health and safety inspections, Mr Ashton suggested that the HSE’s intention to inspect 150 autonomous schools this year will give it a good idea of the standards across Britain’s entire school estate.

The committee questioned witnesses on the DfE’s decision to exclude asbestos from its national audit of the condition of school buildings. Mr Laws suggested that intrusive surveys would not only be expensive but could also potentially damage the asbestos and make it unsafe.

Continuing on this theme, Mr Ashton informed the MPs that the HSE’s policy of managing asbestos for the remaining life of a school building is not based on financial pressures but on its belief that this approach is safer for the building’s occupants than outright removal of the material.

COC member and renowned risk specialist Professor Julian Peto acknowledged that people who were at school during the 1960s and 1970s are a key data group, as they are the first generation that have not been exposed to asbestos in the work environment.

He told the Committee: “It is reasonable to say that something in the order of 100 to 150 mesothelioma deaths a year in women could now be from asbestos exposure in schools in the 1960s and 1970s, and if levels [asbestos-fibre levels] are ten times lower now, then it is reasonable to assume that may go down by a factor of ten in 50 years time. So, under current conditions, there might be 20 or 30 deaths a year in women, and 20 or 30 deaths a year in men caused by asbestos exposure in schools.”

Concerns were also raised that the problem could be exacerbated by the growth in academies and free schools, for which the responsibilities and liabilities for managing asbestos rest with school governors, who are generally lacking in asbestos awareness. Mr Laws said the Government would consider this issue as part of its review.

Commenting in advance of the evidence session, Spencers Solicitors urged the Government to cover asbestos in the national audit of school buildings and prioritise the removal of the substance in those schools found to be most at risk.

“If a teacher was killed every month in the classroom from violence there would be public outrage and urgent calls for action, but because it is asbestos-related it is largely ignored,” said the law firm’s director, John Spencer. It is a complete waste of an opportunity that the DfE is currently running a nationwide survey to consider the physical state of England’s schools, and yet asbestos is specifically not included.

“In an ideal world, we would do all we can to totally eradicate asbestos from our schools once and for all, but in reality we must prioritise funding towards those schools where teachers and our children are most at risk. We can only prioritise action and expenditure if the scale of the problem is fully understood.”

The phased removal of asbestos from all schools according to priority is one of several recommendations made by Michael Lees of the Asbestos in Schools pressure group ““ who also gave evidence to the Committee.

Other recommendations include the re-instatement of proactive HSE inspections of schools to determine the standards of asbestos management; mandatory training, which is adequately funded, for duty-holders; and a trial of widespread air sampling for schools.

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