Of the more than six million tonnes of asbestos remaining in public buildings in the UK, much of it is contained in educational and health facilities.
A total of 305 teachers were confirmed to have died from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, between 2001 and 2016, but the true number is thought to be much higher, according to the campaign group Airtight on Asbestos.
Primary school teachers are around five times more likely to die from asbestos-related conditions than their peers, its research showed.
Charles Pickles, the founder of Airtight on Asbestos, said the problem urgently needed to be addressed.
“We have one of the worst asbestos legacies in the world, and even today exposure to the substance cuts short the lives of 2 to 300 school children each year,” he said.
“Despite this, the government is in denial. Other countries have far better procedures for measuring and managing the handling of asbestos in public buildings. It is time the UK caught up.”
At the start of an asbestos inquiry being launched on Wednesday, Mr Pickles will tell MPs on the Commons work and pensions select committee that the UK does not have an adequate safeguarding policy regarding asbestos.
Under the current system, a designated “duty holder” is assigned to public buildings with asbestos by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is part of the Department for Work and Pensions.
“Some duty holders are either unaware of their responsibilities or unable to fulfil them. As a result, there is a lack of awareness about the presence and location of asbestos in public buildings,” Mr Pickles claimed.
“The issue is particularly bad in schools, where the knowledge and awareness of duty holders varies between schools that are privately owned, state funded, academy or local authority controlled,” he added.
Philip Blond, of the think tank ResPublica, which works with Airtight on Asbestos on its campaign, also urged the government to improve the status quo.
“Allowing toxic materials to sit in the walls of public buildings as they decay and grow increasingly dangerous is a tragic indictment of the current system of containment and control. The shocking death rate amongst teachers and nurses underlines the need to act fast,” he said.
Unlike in some other countries, the UK does not have a central register of asbestos in public buildings. This must be changed for public safety, Airtight on Asbestos will argue.
The campaign group will also recommend that duty holders receive better training and that the HSE be required to guarantee - rather than assume - that buildings are safe.
The committee’s asbestos inquiry will hear evidence over the next few months, before releasing a report on the issue in 2022.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies