Asbestos: New blow to victims of a shameful legacy

Campaigners react with fury as coalition cites cost as reason for ruling deadly material out of national school building audit. Jonathan Owen reports

The Government has deliberately excluded asbestos from an unprecedented review of the condition of the country's schools because it knows that tackling the risks to schoolchildren and teachers could cost hundreds of millions, critics claim.

Campaigners reacted with fury last night as it emerged a year-long survey of England's 23,000 schools will examine every aspect of buildings – from classroom decoration to whether fire alarms and toilets are in working order – but will specifically exclude asbestos, the most serious threat of all to staff and pupils.

An internal Department for Education email, seen by The Independent on Sunday, makes it clear that pressure to include asbestos in the assessment of the state of schools, which begins in April and will be used to inform future funding, had to be resisted due to "cost implications and the fact that asbestos management should already be carried out under existing legal requirements". The memo, dated September 2011, suggests that the survey programme "might well be able to provide some prompts and checks on that wider process, however".

The costs – and risks – of removing asbestos mean that authorities have to strike a delicate balance in managing it, and current policy is against removal for its own sake.

Critics claim the Government's attitude to the deadly disease is highlighted by comments that Nick Gibb, the Schools minister, is said to have made to asbestos campaigners three years ago. Referring to the potential costs of dealing with asbestos, at a meeting in the Commons, he is alleged to have remarked: "You are telling me that I will have to cripple the education budget to save the lives of a few thousand middle-aged people."

Mr Gibb, an opposition MP at the time of the 2009 meeting, denied the claims yesterday: "It is totally absurd to suggest that I said these things. It is not my view and has never been my view – my view is that the health and welfare of pupils and staff is absolutely paramount and should never be jeopardised."

The scale of the challenge is vast. Most of Britain's schools contain asbestos – more than 75 per cent, according to government estimates. Britain imported hundreds of thousands of tons of asbestos in the last century, when it was routinely used in construction for its fire-retardant and insulating properties. Although it was banned in 1999, a deadly legacy remains. Exposure to tiny amounts of the fibres can result in a number of diseases, some of which – like mesothelioma, a form of cancer – are fatal. Others, such as asbestosis, which permanently scars the lungs and makes it hard to breathe, have a severe impact on health.

Not everyone exposed to asbestos becomes ill, but it can take several decades for symptoms to appear.

There has been a 15-fold rise in mesothelioma deaths in Britain since 1967, with more than 2,300 in 2009 (men accounted for 83 per cent). The annual death toll from asbestos-related diseases in Britain alone is expected to be at least 5,000 by 2015.

More than 228 teachers have died of mesothelioma since 1980, according to the campaign group Asbestos in Schools, who, citing US government research, believe a further nine children will die for every teacher dying from the disease, resulting in more than 2,000 deaths of children in adulthood.

The Government admits that no national picture of asbestos in schools or the costs of dealing with it exists. It says responsibility lies with local authorities and schools. Strict controls have been in force for decades and government policy is for schools to manage asbestos – for instance, by sealing it with silicone – rather than remove it. But banging doors or bumping into walls can be enough to disturb it, and earlier this month the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) warned that school staff "should be instructed not to disturb or damage asbestos-containing materials, for example, by pinning work to walls".

The Government argues a national audit is unnecessary as the problem is dealt with locally. Despite this, it spent £4.5m on an audit of asbestos in Northern Ireland schools in 2003/04. The following year, £3.8m was allocated to pay for its removal in "top priority" cases. England has 19 times as many schools, meaning a similar exercise would cost at least £153m.

In a statement, the Department for Education said asbestos was excluded from the upcoming property surveys because any assessment could not "substitute for local asbestos surveys already required by the Control of Asbestos Regulations".

But education unions argue this policy is not matched in practice. Chris Keates, head of the NASUWT, the largest teachers' union, accused ministers of "reckless buck-passing", adding: "Local authorities have been stripped of the resources ... needed to carry out these responsibilities. While the Government behaves like Pontius Pilate, washing its hands of responsibility, the health of children and the workforce is being put at risk."

Echoing concerns over shrinking budgets, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Local authorities really haven't got the resources to take the lead on this, and schools haven't got the skills, and that only leaves central government to sort it out."

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: "The HSE is ... clear that if asbestos is not disturbed or damaged, it is safer to leave it in situ, with robust processes in place to contain and monitor it. We are working hard with the HSE to make sure asbestos is managed properly in schools, and will not hesitate to take tough action where there is danger to the welfare of pupils and staff."

But Mary Bousted, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warned that asbestos is "poorly managed in many schools", while Christine Blower, head of the National Union of Teachers, accused successive governments of "dragging their feet". She said pupils and teachers across the country "are daily put at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases as a result of inaction from politicians".

Schools do not have to tell people if they have asbestos, or routinely report the condition it is in. Nor do they have to remove asbestos during refurbishment, according to the HSE. Inspections of 164 schools outside local authority control, including private schools, church schools and academies, in 2010/11, found one in seven to be "below acceptable standards". And of 42 local authorities in England investigated by the HSE in 2009, a quarter received formal warnings.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal how cost has been cited for years by government officials advising against a national audit of schools. In 1993, a ministerial briefing stated that an audit would "lead to further demands for additional public expenditure on school buildings, at a time of increased resource squeeze". Another briefing in 1994 warned of a "panic reaction" and "significant cost implications".

And correspondence from an education official to the HSE in 1997 said: "Like you, we would not be very keen on the idea of surveying all the schools. The cost of survey and removal and reinstatement would be prohibitive."

The Government has failed to assess the scale of the problem and needs to adopt the precautionary principle, according to Michael Lees, from the Asbestos in Schools group. "So long as asbestos is present there is the potential that it will be disturbed and staff and children exposed," he said. "A policy of progressive removal should be adopted, with priority being given to the most dangerous materials."

 

Additional reporting: Tom Goodenough

The risks laid bare

1879 Rochdale businessman Samuel Turner pioneers the use of asbestos in Britain, using it to lag steam engines.

1898 Chief inspector of factories in the UK reports that asbestos had "easily demonstrated" health risks.

1906 First documented asbestos-related death in England.

1924 First asbestosis diagnosis.

1931 Britain becomes first country to bring in asbestos safety regulations.

1945-80 Post-war building boom relied heavily on the use of asbestos.

1955 Epidemiologist Dr Richard Doll links asbestos with lung cancer.

1965 Factories Inspectorate report warns of asbestos-mesothelioma links.

1969 UK brings in Asbestos Usage rules.

1976 Department of Education issues guidance on asbestos management.

1985 Use of crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos) banned.

1998 Council of Europe recommends all asbestos be banned in member states.

1999 Use of chrysotile (white asbestos) banned.

2006 Control of Asbestos Regulations pull together three previous sets of rules.

2011 In landmark judgment, Supreme Court rules Dianne Willmore, 49, had been negligently exposed to asbestos at school – causing the mesothelioma that killed her in 2009. It accepted expert medical evidence that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.

Susan Langthorp, 58

Ms Langthorp, a medical science writer based in Athens, Greece, was diagnosed three years ago with mesothelioma. Ms Langthorp believes she was exposed while at school in England – at Willerby Primary School, Hull, and Beverley High School for Girls, Yorkshire.

"I wanted to be a vet or a doctor when I was a little girl. I never thought years later I would be dying from a disease caused by going to school. I was numb when I was told in 2009 I was suffering from an asbestos-related disease. To my knowledge, I have never breathed in any dust or anything like that. I had heard of school buildings containing asbestos and found out it was in the schools I went to. I feel angry ... I fear I won't see my children married or my grandchildren. It's criminal to have asbestos in a public place where there are young children."

Sarah Bowman, 43

Ms Bowman, from London, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2009. She claims she was exposed to asbestos at school. Brent Council admits that William Gladstone School, since demolished, contained asbestos, but claims any connection is "highly unlikely".

"I was 41 when I was diagnosed, You can't tell someone they are going to die at 41. I'd never even heard of mesothelioma. I had heard of asbestos and knew it was no good for you, but I didn't know it killed you. When I was diagnosed my world blew apart, I felt very alone, very scared. They know there was asbestos in the school I went to. I'll take this as far as I can. I remember one time when a kid threw a chair and it stuck in the wall and we all laughed – but now I know it's enough to disturb the asbestos, just like putting drawing pins into the wall.

"I think the Government should be more honest about the risks. They should manage it correctly and label it so that everybody knows about it.

"Asbestos is 'safe if it is managed correctly', but how can it be? Kids slam doors, that's what kids do, and that's enough to disturb asbestos."

Carole Hagedorn, 61

Ms Hagedorn lives in Chelmsford, Essex. After decades of teaching, she was forced to retire early when diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2008.

"All of the schools that I've worked in have been of a certain age and have all had asbestos. I've had no other career so I am convinced I was exposed at schools. The worst thing about it is the shock because you don't expect to get an industrial disease from working in a school; your life changes shape, becoming a round of treatments and operations.

"The Government has played down the risks over the years. The bottom line is that it is very expensive to remove asbestos, but there has to be a phased plan of removal; working out which are the worst schools and dealing with those first. There needs to be some kind of commitment from the Government.

"I feel like I'm collateral damage, and I will not be the last – there will be more. Far too many schools are failing to manage their asbestos and are putting the lives of staff and children at risk."

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