Yardley School in Birmingham has reopened after an arson attack on a neighbouring warehouse on 29th September 2014.
Asbestos contamination fears
The school was shut as a result of fears of asbestos contamination. The school had been closed for five weeks and was reopened once the head teacher obtained written confirmation that the site was safe.
The students were transported to other schools during this period and also took online lessons to minimise disruption to their education. Last week governors said agreements regarding cleaning and monitoring had been reached with the council.
Asbestos awareness in schools petitions
On 21st October 2014, the National Assembly for Wales Petitions Committee discussed various petitions presented to the assembly.
One such petition called on the Welsh Government to implement measures to ensure that parents and guardians can easily access information about the presence and management of asbestos in schools and associated buildings.
It is understood that the committee will write to the Education Minister seeking his view on the consultation under way in England regarding asbestos and the management of the same.
Exposure to asbestos at school
Exposure to asbestos is normally associated with manual workers in the construction and engineering industries. However, there have been a number of stories reported over recent years of teachers developing mesothelioma, the asbestos cancer, as a result of being exposed to asbestos in schools. One such example was reported in 2013.
Marion Potts had taught in schools in Britain and Norway for over 25 years. She was 63 years old when she was diagnosed with asbestos related mesothelioma. At her inquest it was heard that the only place she could have been exposed to asbestos was whilst at school when pinning children’s work on the walls of her classrooms. A verdict of industrial disease was recorded with the coroner commenting that he hoped,
“…all the necessary steps are taken in the future to ensure the elimination of this substance.”
Teachers at risk of exposure
The statistics show that over 140 teachers have died in the UK of mesothelioma over the past decade. An all-party Parliamentary group in 2012 warned that 75% of schools nationwide contain asbestos and are risking the exposureof both children and staff to the dangerous material. There have been calls for the material to be removed from schools immediately.
The National Union of Teachers representative Pete Sopowski said:
‘There’s a huge problem in schools. It’s a case of which schools don’t have it rather than which do.’
A landmark decision involving a school pupil exposed to asbestos developing mesothelioma was reported in 2011. The case of Diane Wilmore was reported widely in the press and in the legal community.
Mrs Wilmore had been a pupil at Bowring Comprehensive School in Merseyside. She recalled council workmen removing asbestos ceiling tiles whilst she was present and also schoolmates removing ceiling tiles to put blazers into the ceiling voids as a prank. She also recalled there being vandalised stacks of asbestos tiles in the girls’ toilets.
Mrs. Wilmore was awarded £240,000 when her claim was heard at the High Court in Liverpool. However, the defendant Council appealed the decision on the basis that the asbestos exposure was not significant enough to have doubled the risk of Mrs. Wilmore developing mesothelioma.
The matter went to the Court of Appeal and subsequently to the Supreme Court where the decision was upheld on both occasions. All seven Law Lords said that the test in terms of the asbestos exposure should remain as the “material contribution” test rather than a “doubling of the risk” test.
Philip Parkin, the general secretary of education union Voice, said the case highlights the fact that everyone working or present in schools needs protection against the dangers of disturbed asbestos. He said:
“The circumstances demonstrated how easily general pupil behaviour can disturb asbestos that is not properly managed.”
Asbestos at school is putting our children at risk
A report released in 2011 suggested that children were at a greater risk and susceptibility to develop mesothelioma. This makes the problem of asbestos in our schools an even greater problem. The committee report stated that a five year old is five times more likely to develop mesothelioma than an adult of 30.
The basis for this was not that a child’s lungs are necessarily more susceptible to mesothelioma but that a child will normally live longer and have more time for the asbestos disease to develop. The latency period for mesothelioma, or the period between and exposure and the onset of symptoms, is usually between 10 and 50 years.The data is too limited at this stage to say whether children are more intrinsically susceptible to the disease.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said:
“We welcome the Committee on Carcinogenicity’s report on the effect exposure to asbestos can have on children, and have committed to consider the findings when reviewing our policy on asbestos management.
Schools already must comply with the strict legal duties on asbestos. We have also published guidance on the issue and work closely with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to ensure asbestos is managed properly in all schools.”
Campaigners continue to request that the government pledge to remove asbestos from all of England’s schools. It is a source of constant debate as to whether complete removal offers the better solution than leaving undisturbed asbestos in situ and managing it effectively.
It is clear that financial consideration will be a part of any decisions taken.