Asbestos in schools – a statistical concern

iStock_000001167898LargeThere has recently been considerable media interest on the subject of asbestos in schools, primarily as a result of an investigation by BBC Wales . During the investigation the BBC carried out a survey of local authorities and found 1,514 schools in Wales – approximately 85% of the total – contained asbestos.

Teacher and parent groups are understandably concerned about this statistic. The carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties of asbestos are widely known; thousands of workers are known to suffer and die each year from asbestos-related disease.

What are the risks?
Asbestos is a generic term for a group of fibrous minerals, the most commonly used types of which are chrysotile (white asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos). The long, thin fibres give asbestos an extremely high tensile strength and excellent chemical, electrical and heat resistance properties which made it extremely popular in the past as a building and insulation material.

However exposure to airborne asbestos fibres can cause a type of lung cancer known as mesothelioma, which can take up to 30 years to develop. According to the Health Protection Agency (HPA), if children are exposed to asbestos by inhalation they “may develop lung cancer or mesothelioma at a younger age than when exposure occurs in adults” .

Many buildings constructed before the 1990s contain asbestos which can be found in pipe lagging, roof tiles, roof/column coatings, insulating boards, floor tiles and even decorative coatings such as Artex. In most cases asbestos is perfectly safe providing it is suitably controlled, e.g. by using a spray-applied solution to encapsulate it.

Legal Requirements
Duty holders have a legal obligation to manage the risk from asbestos in non-domestic premises. Duty holders include those responsible for the maintenance and/or repair of non-domestic premises; this includes the owners of such premises, whether they are occupied or vacant.

The aim is to protect workers who may come across asbestos in the course of their day-to-day activities, since the major problem facing these workers is that they often do not know where and when the material may be encountered.

“The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) L127: The Management of Asbestos in Non-domestic Premises” explains the duties of building owners, tenants and any other parties who have any legal responsibility for the work premises. It also sets out what is required of people who have a responsibility to co-operate with the main duty holder.

Asbestos, managed properly, is not a significant hazard. However if it is damaged either intentionally or by accident and fibres become airborne then there may be a serious health risk to teachers, pupils and others.

As with most Health and Safety issues, awareness and knowledge are key so it is vitally important that duty holders a) know and understand their legal duties, b) ensure that they fully comply with their duties and c) get help if they do not understand.

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