There were 266 domestic fire deaths in the UK in 2013. About the same number of adults die each year as a result of asbestos exposure experienced as a child at school.
However, while the fire service rightly devotes much public effort and advertising to warning against the dangers of house fires, there is no public awareness campaign over asbestos in schools.
At the same time, there were 109 cycle deaths in 2013. This rightly led to huge concern over cycle safety in London – an intervention from the London mayor, enhanced police activity and much public debate about the need for safety features on goods lorries.
But the government has allowed the Health and Safety Executive to stop proactive asbestos inspections of schools. This was despite the estimate of the number of former pupils whose deaths were related to asbestos exposure being more than twice the number of people who die on bicycles a year.
It is clearly right to try to reduce fire and cycle deaths – but why is there so little focus on asbestos?
Perhaps it is the delayed effect – death can occur decades after first exposure. But those 200 to 300 former pupils who die each year are stolen from their families, often with dependent children, and are robbed of many years of productive life and a happy retirement.
And these deaths are in addition to the known mesothelioma deaths among teachers – 22 died in the UK in 2012 alone.?
Mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos, is preventable – but the government needs to act. Asbestos should be removed from schools, starting with schools where the asbestos is in the worst condition and most dangerous. But management of all asbestos needs to be improved too, particularly in schools where children are still at potential risk.
Something as seemingly trivial as a drawing pin in a wall could lead to exposure. However, our recent survey of teachers, covered in SecEd, (Asbestos management policy is not working, teachers warn, SecEd 411, April 23, 2015) showed that 44 per cent had not been told if their school contained asbestos. Parents also tend to get little information on what their child’s school is doing to manage asbestos where it is present.
The continuing presence of asbestos in our schools is a scandal. Nearly 90 per cent of schools still contain asbestos. The coalition government has not acknowledged that there is a serious problem with asbestos in schools and as a consequence has, despite its recent Asbestos in Schools Review, failed to provide a long-term strategy to address the problem.
The NUT will continue to work through the Joint Union Asbestos Committee. We want to see nothing less than a complete national audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in our schools.
In the short to medium-term, asbestos must be better managed. In the long-term, however, any future government must make real steps towards the removal of asbestos in schools, so that this threat to pupils, teachers and other school staff can finally be eradicated.
The Australian government is committed to solving its asbestos problem once and for all by the prioritised removal of all asbestos from public and commercial buildings. The UK has the highest mesothelioma rate in the world, so why are we not following suit?
It is good to see that Labour will move on this in the event of their being elected on May 7. While we cannot do anything about past exposure, we must prevent more children and staff being exposed.
Kevin Courtney is the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Visit www.teachers.org.uk