Asbestos was once thought of as a wonder product. With its strength, versatility and insulating properties asbestos was used widely in the construction industry until it became publically known that asbestos caused health problems and was banned in the UK in 1999.
Asbestos has been shown to cause mesothelioma, a rare terminal cancer of the linings which cover and protect the body’s organs. Most commonly, mesothelioma occurs in the lungs or abdomen but can also affect the linings of the heart, testicles and ovaries. Asbestos also causes pleural thickening, a non-cancerous scarring of the lungs, asbestosis, a chronic, non-cancerous thickening and scarring of the lungs and asbestos lung cancer.
There is a latency period of between 10 and 50 years from exposure to asbestos to the development of symptoms of an asbestos related condition. For years, people who used to work in the asbestos and construction industry have been diagnosed with asbestos conditions and sought compensation for them. Around 2,000 die each year from mesothelioma and it is estimated that incidences of the asbestos cancer will continue to increase, peaking around 2016.
Although more commonly associated with the construction industry, mesothelioma rates are now increasing in the education sector, with the number of teachers diagnosed with mesothelioma on the up.
In 1967 the Government was made aware that low levels of asbestos could lead to mesothelioma and was warned about the dangers of asbestos in schools. Despite this information, building schools with large amounts of asbestos continued until the early 1980s. Crocidolite, amosite and chrysotile were all used in the construction of schools for insulation, lagging, roods, doors, floor tiles and many other purposes all over schools. Unfortunately, as school buildings age and deteriorate, so does the asbestos within them and currently, asbestos management within schools is not effective. As a result, asbestos incidents occur frequently, exposing staff and pupils to potentially deadly asbestos fibres.
Between 1980 and 2005, almost 200 school teachers died due to mesothelioma, this is far higher than expected for what is thought to be a low risk occupation. The HSE believe that for a group that has supposedly had very little asbestos exposure, there are far too many deaths due to mesothelioma. It has been found that the number of teachers who die from mesothelioma is statistically significant and so there must be a relationship between asbestos products in schools and teachers dying from mesothelioma.
There are currently no definite records or estimates of how many children have been exposed to asbestos or died due to mesothelioma. However, if the number of teachers is considered, the greater number of children in schools makes it likely that children have been exposed and will die from mesothelioma.
Children are more vulnerable to asbestos exposure than adults. If a 30 year old adult and a 5 year old child are exposed to the same amounts of asbestos, the child is three and a half times more likely to develop mesothelioma. Children are generally more active and so breathe more often, they are also usually closer to the floor, where released asbestos dust and fibres eventually settle. As children are still growing, their cellular growth and metabolic rates also make them more vulnerable to developing mesothelioma.
Since 1968, in the UK, nine people under the age of 19 have died due to mesothelioma. For the majority of these, the source of asbestos exposure is unknown but is likely to have been whilst at school. An increasing number of teachers and support staff have made claims for compensation after developing mesothelioma, former pupils are also beginning to pursue legal claims.
So, what can be done to prevent exposure to asbestos in schools? The HSE advise that the only way to ensure no further asbestos exposure is the safe removal of all asbestos from all schools. However, this would be a costly operation and as asbestos is only a danger when disturbed and released into the atmosphere, it is not seen as a cost effective solution. It has been suggested that asbestos management in schools needs to be improved. To do this, there needs to be thorough asbestos surveys in all schools, air sampling, asbestos guidance, asbestos awareness training for staff and resources allocated to allow this to happen. When schools are refurbished, all asbestos should be identified and removed and priority should be given to the removal of the most dangerous asbestos materials present.
It is not only workers in schools who are not being affected by previous asbestos exposure. An increasing number of hospital workers are being diagnosed with asbestos related conditions. Glan Clwyd Hospital in Denbighshire is undergoing redevelopment, the first phase of which involves extensive asbestos removal.