Millions of school staff and pupils could have become exposed to asbestos dust in schools over decades leading to thousands of deaths, MPs heard last week.
The all-party House of Commons Education Select Committee was told that a lack of awareness and training about the dangers of the substance had led to a failure by schools to manage their asbestos properly.
A Medical Research Council document, presented to the committee, had come to the conclusion that “it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings”.
MPs heard that there was particular concern about academies and free schools, where governors rather than local authorities now had responsibility and liability for managing asbestos. However, governing bodies were not trained in asbestos awareness.
David Laws, the schools minister, said the government would be reviewing its policies on asbestos, with an internal review planned jointly by the Department for Education and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Mr Laws acknowledged concerns about the possible effects of the academies and free schools programmes and said this would be one of the areas addressed.
The committee was told that the government had declared schools as a “low-risk” and had cancelled proactive inspections to determine the standards of asbestos management in local authority schools. David Ashton, director of the Field Operations Directorate at the HSE, said it was not necessary to inspect all schools and that the HSE’s inspections of 150 schools this year would give them a robust picture of asbestos standards across all 34,000 schools in Britain.
He said that it was HSE policy for schools to leave asbestos in place undisturbed and to manage it as this was safer for students and staff.
But Professor Julian Peto, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a world expert on risk and a member of the Committee on Carcinogenicity, told MPs that there were currently between 100 and 150 deaths a year in women from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma, which could be from asbestos exposure in schools during the 1960s and 70s.
“If asbestos fibre levels are 10 times lower now, then it is reasonable to assume that may go down by a factor of 10 in 50 years’ time,” he said. “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.”
The evidence gathered in the session will allow MPs to assess the scale of the problem and may lead to a full inquiry into the state of asbestos management in schools, once the Committee on Carcinogenicity publishes a report in May on the relative vulnerability of children to asbestos.
Michael Lees, from the Asbestos in Schools Group, told SecEd: “We are seeing potentially thousands of deaths of people who had no idea they were being exposed to asbestos in schools. That is an enormous number and the government has a duty to protect them. Instead, it appears to be ignoring all the evidence. We need the Select Committee to carry out a full inquiry so that issues around asbestos in schools can be properly brought out into the public domain.”
Julie Winn, chairman of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC), highlighted unacceptable variations in standards of asbestos management, and called for the reintroduction of proactive inspections in schools.
She said it was disappointing that Mr Laws had reiterated the long-held government position that a national audit of the extent and condition of asbestos in schools is not necessary, and that the current management system is functioning satisfactorily.
“It is absolutely essential that as a first step the government assesses the scale of the problem of asbestos in schools,” she said. “With children known to be vulnerable because of the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases, parents will expect nothing less.”
Roger Leighton, head of the Sydney Russell School in Dagenham, described the excellent support he received from his local authority and suggested that such “middle tier” support was needed in academies and free schools.
Ms Winn added: “JUAC is hopeful that members of the Select Committee will reflect carefully on what they have heard and support our calls for central collection of data on the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools and the re-introduction of pro-active inspections in schools, leading to a programme for the phased removal of asbestos, with priority given to those schools where the asbestos is in the worst condition.”