Warning Over Asbestos “Time Bomb” In UK Schools

Campaigners are warning of a “ticking time bomb” after research showed councils have paid out more than £10m in compensation to people who became ill because of exposure to asbestos in schools.

The BBC Yorkshire findings show that 32 local authorities have made payments to teachers, support staff and students over the last ten years.

MP Rachel Reeves, chair of the Asbestos in Schools Group, told BBC radio: “The problem is that children, parents and staff don’t know where that asbestos is and as a result they’re putting themselves at risk. Asbestos in schools is a time bomb and it’s ticking.”

A group of trade unions have now united under the banner of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) to demand that asbestos is removed from schools as a matter of urgency, ending what they call the “deadly asbestos gamble”.

They say that almost nine out of ten schools contain the material and warn that cases of the fatal lung cancer mesothelioma are on the increase, with 17 teachers dying of the disease in 2013 alone. And they believe that up to 300 people die every year as a result of exposure when they were schoolchildren.

“Nothing can be done to put right past asbestos exposure, but we must do more to protect future generations of school children and staff,” said National Union of Teacher acting general secretary Kevin Courtney.  “The government must now set out a long-term strategy for the phased removal of asbestos from all schools.”

However, education secretary Justine Greening says that while removing asbestos is usually the best course of action, in some cases the government’s expert advice is not to disturb the material. If asbestos remains undisturbed and its disposal is safely managed, the government insists the material does not present a “significant risk”.

The government is promising to invest £23bn in a programme of school building improvements over the next five years which will include removing asbestos.

The BBC figures, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, indicate that 12,600 schools under local authority control are known to contain asbestos, which was widely used in the construction industry until finally being completely banned in 1999.

The overall number of contaminated schools is thought to be far higher as academies are not included in the statistics.

Asbestos can cause a number of serious illnesses including mesothelioma, a fatal form of lung cancer, which results in around 5,000 deaths every year and can take 50 years or more for symptoms to show.

More than 8,000 people have signed a petition on the website 38degrees.org.uk calling on the government to follow the US example and make schools release an asbestos status report every year, as well as phasing out all asbestos by 2028.

The petition was started Lucie Stephens, whose mum Sue, a retired teacher, died of mesothelioma earlier this year.

Official government statistics reveal that 248 people whose occupation was given as teacher, teaching assistant, nursery nurse or school secretary are known to have died from mesothelioma between 2003 and 2012. It’s not known how many workers in higher risk roles such as caretaker or cleaner died from the illness.

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