As a personal
injury lawyer, my role is normally to try and help people piece back together
their lives after suffering serious injury. Campaigning on the issue of
asbestos in schools, though, gives me a rare
opportunity to change the future.
More than 75 per
cent of Britain’s state schools contain asbestos and indeed in Wales the
percentage is higher at approximately 85 per cent. In other words the vast
majority of the population of the UK may have encountered asbestos whilst at
I first became
aware of the issue when I was instructed on behalf of a school cleaner who had
been diagnosed with the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma. Unsurprisingly
she was unable to recall any exposure to asbestos. It did not occur to her that
she might have been exposed to asbestos as a child at school or later when
working at a number of schools.
Not long afterwards
I had the privilege of hearing Michael Lees MBE speak. Michael, who lost his
wife Gina, a schoolteacher aged only 51, to mesothelioma, has been a tireless
campaigner on asbestos in schools and his sheer bloody minded persistence has
been an inspiration to many including myself.
I quickly realised
that whilst in England, the Department for Education was taking some note, in Wales
where health and education are both devolved to Welsh government, no-one
appeared to be taking responsibility for the problem. This led to the founding
of the Right to Know Asbestos in Schools campaign. I have since become part of
the UK Asbestos in Schools Group and attend the Joint Union Asbestos Committee
as an observer.
So why is this
important? We are seeing an increasing number of teachers, a profession not
normally associated with exposure to asbestos, dying from mesothelioma. This
has risen from three teachers per year dying in 1980 to 22 by 2012. Official
statistics only record deaths aged up to 75. Former teachers aged over 75 have
also died from mesothelioma. Since 1980 more than 291 teachers have died.
There are also
deaths from mesothelioma amongst teaching assistants and school secretaries. It
is known that school cleaners, caretakers and cooks are also dying but the
occupational statistics are generic and do not identify those who worked in
This is just the tip of the iceberg, however, because
for every teacher there are 20-30 children, and they are more vulnerable. We
are now seeing people dying from mesothelioma as a result of childhood
In June 2013 the
Committee on Carcinogenicity reported to the Department for Education that
children were more vulnerable than adults to asbestos exposure.
and world renowned epidemiologist Professor Julian Peto has estimated that
between 200-300 people will die each year because of their exposure to asbestos at school in the 1960s and 1970s.
If people were
dying in such numbers because of accidents on the roads or at work then there
would be an outcry. However because of the nature of mesothelioma, and the fact
that it takes decades for the disease to become symptomatic, exposure to
asbestos in our schools is not getting the attention it deserves.
As our school
buildings age, it is becoming harder to manage the asbestos in our schools. The
excellent report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health
“Asbestos in Schools The need for action” contains the following
- “The Government should set a programme for the phased removal of
asbestos from all schools, with priority being given to those schools
where the asbestos is considered to be most dangerous or damaged.
- Standards in asbestos training should be set and the training should
be mandatory and properly funded.
- A trial should take place to perfect a system of widespread air sampling
- A policy of openness should be adopted. Parents, teachers and
support staff should be annually updated on the presence of asbestos in
their schools and the measures that are being taken to manage it.
- Pro-active inspections to determine the standards of asbestos management
should be reinstated, with a view to reducing future costs.
- Data should be collected centrally on the extent, type and condition
of asbestos in schools and this becomes an integral part of the data
collection of the condition of the nation’s schools.”
A real issue is
that we do not know the measure of the problem that faces us, as we do not
truly know the extent of the asbestos in our schools. Governments need to
collate the data so that the action to be taken can be properly assessed.
To quote from
Professor Peto’s evidence to the Education Select Committee in March 2013
"All that matters is whether or not kids are
breathing in asbestos and, until you find that out, everything else is hot
We cannot afford further inaction!