Demand for national asbestos database as cancer deaths surge

Focus on schools and hospitals amid concern over safety of teachers and nurses
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The Independent Online

A nationwide survey of all public buildings is urgently needed amid concerns that growing numbers of teachers, doctors and nurses are dying from asbestos-related diseases, campaigners said yesterday.

Unions and support groups want a national database so that employees and the public can check how much asbestos their workplaces contain.

Their calls come amid growing evidence suggesting asbestos-related diseases, such as incurable mesothelioma lung cancer, are increasingly prevalent among those working in schools and hospitals, many of which still contain tonnes of asbestos.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the government quango in charge of safety within the workplace, 183 teachers and lecturers died from mesothelioma between 1980 and 2000. Between 2002 and 2005, however, the cancer killed 76.

Ucatt, which represents construction workers, and the National Union of Teachers both want central government to survey all public buildings and remove any decaying material that might cause a risk. Alan Ritchie, general secretary of Ucatt, said last night: "Every time someone drills into a wall they could be potentially risking their long term health."

At least 13,000 out of the 20,400 primary schools and 3,400 secondaries in Britain were built between 1945 and 1974, when the use of asbestos-containing materials was at its height.

Official guidelines state that as long as asbestos remains undisturbed it poses no risk. Only if it is broken and microscopic fibres are released into the air can it be inhaled into the lungs.

Asbestos is already the workplace's number one killer, with more than 5,000 people dying from related diseases every year. Victims have tended to come from traditionally blue-collar and industrial trades. But the growing number of deaths within the teaching and medical professions has led campaigners to ask whether low-level exposure could also be deadly.

David Cass, a solicitor from Irwin Mitchell in Sheffield, which specialises in compensation for asbestos victims, said mesothelioma victims now came from a greater variety of professions. "It used to be a disease that primarily targeted old men – the skilled labourers and tradesmen who cut through asbestos boards and installed lagging," he said. "Now people are coming to us who have been exposed in much less obvious places." He added: "We often find ourselves representing doctors, nurses and teachers."

Earlier this year, East of England Strategic Health Authority paid an undisclosed sum to two nurses who contracted mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos, and in August, 28-year-old Leigh Carlisle, from Oldham, became the youngest person in Britain to die from mesothelioma. Lawyers acting on behalf of her family have since lodged a Freedom of Information request to uncover whether any of the schools she was taught in as a child contained asbestos.

The HSE has resisted calls for a database, arguing that it would be prohibitively expensive to set up, and questioned whether it would do anything to halt asbestos-related deaths. Although information on asbestos levels within public buildings can often be obtained through Freedom of Information requests, campaigners believe the Government should do much more to clarify how much asbestos is in schools and hospitals. A request lodged by a newspaper in Fife this week revealed 149 primary and secondary schools out of a total of 175 in the area have asbestos in them. Jason Addy, an academic at Manchester Metropolitan University whose grandfather Ivan died of an asbestos-related disease, said a national database of audited buildings would enable parents to know how much asbestos was in schools they might send their children to.

Kimberly Stubbs lost two members of her family to mesothelioma, including her mother June, and now runs the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund. She said: "The Government has made sure that we can no longer walk into pubs full of cancer- causing cigarette smoke and yet I can walk into any public building and be none the wiser as to whether there is potentially lethal asbestos in there."