Pupils at secondary schools across UK may have been exposed to asbestos from heatproof gauze mats used with Bunsen burners, after the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said two companies had been supplying the deadly material to schools.
As the new academic year begins, science teachers have been warned not to use their stocks of heatproof mats and to remove them from classrooms and “seal them with tape”, until their certification with suppliers has been established, or they have been given the all clear after laboratory tests.
The risk of exposure remains “low”, the HSE said and told the companies to stop supplying the mats to schools, adding they were working to establish which schools were affected.
As it is impossible to establish which of the metal mats contain the deadly carcinogen and which do not, schools would have had no indication the materials were unsafe.
While unions suggested the gauze mat may have been supplied to schools from 1976, it is understood HSE officials believe the issue is a far more recent problem.
An HSE spokesperson said: “Although the risk of exposure is low, we took action as soon as we were informed.
“HSE inspectors ensured supply of the asbestos-containing gauze mats was stopped immediately. We got the message out as soon as possible and alerted schools, colleges and others to the issue, providing precautionary advice on how to check if they are affected and if so what to do next.
“Our investigation into the circumstances that led to these particular gauze mats coming into circulation is on going. As part of this, HSE inspectors have served enforcement notices on both companies to ensure that all affected mats are disposed of safely.”
But the Nasuwt teaching union has written to the Department for Education (DfE) saying the length of time the companies have been selling products containing asbestos to schools “beggars belief”, and demanded the names of the two suppliers be made public.
Chris Keates, the Nasuwt general secretary, said: “It is shocking that suppliers, clearly it seems only interested in profit not people, have distributed such life-threatening equipment to schools, putting children and teachers and other staff at risk.
“It beggars belief that this situation has been allowed to happen for so long, possibly as far back as 1976.
“Whilst it is to be welcomed that the HSE has highlighted this major hazard to the health of children and young people and all those who work on school sites, it is unacceptable that the two suppliers involved have not been named.”
She added: “The Nasuwt believes that the suppliers must be named immediately, not only to enable schools to identify if they have used the suppliers and therefore may have this potentially deadly material on site, but also so that they can be held accountable by those whose health may well have been damaged by using this equipment.
“The fact that the HSE has told these suppliers to immediately stop sending the gauze to schools, highlights the seriousness of this issue.”
The gauze mats, placed on tripods above Bunsen burners during science lessons, have a white heat-resistant pad at the centre.
The presence of tremolite asbestos, which makes up 20-30 per cent of the heat-resistant material, was discovered after testing, HealthandSafetyatWork.com reports.
Tremolite has needle-like fibres and is considered as toxic as chrysotile or white asbestos, the most common form of asbestos.
Inhalation of the fibres can lead to a range of respiratory conditions, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
A DfE spokesperson told The Independent: “Following advice from the Health and Safety Executive we have immediately written to all secondary schools and colleges advising them to take steps to remove and dispose of potentially hazardous mesh gauze used in science lessons.
“We will continue to liaise with the HSE and Cleapss (Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services) over this issue.”
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