In March 2015 the government published ‘The management of asbestos in schools: a review of Department for Education policy.’ The Department for Education reviewed its asbestos management policy for schools and the publication set out its findings and the steps that needed to be taken to ensure the safe, effective management of asbestos in schools.
The policy only relates to schools in England and now campaigners are urging the Welsh government to follow suit and address the issue of the dangers posed by asbestos in schools in Wales.
Asbestos was widely used in the construction industry from the 1950s onwards. Its versatility, insulation and fire retardant properties saw asbestos hailed as a wonder product, used in walls, ceilings and floors in houses, hospitals, schools and many other types of buildings.
However, asbestos was not as fantastic as everyone thought, many people who worked with the substance or came into contact with it, for example from the clothes of family members, suffered a variety of breathing problems and health issues years after coming into contact with the harmful material.
It is now well known that asbestos causes asbestosis, pleural thickening, asbestos lung cancer and mesothelioma. Whilst most asbestos related conditions are caused by substantial exposure to asbestos, such as daily contact mixing asbestos powder or sawing asbestos sheets, mesothelioma can develop in sufferers after very light exposure to asbestos.
There have been numerous stories of teachers who have been exposed to minimal amounts of asbestos and who have sadly gone onto develop mesothelioma. Asbestos is hazardous when it is in a poor state or it is disturbed and fibres resulting in fibres being released into the air. The majority of teachers who have suffered mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos when putting up displays in classrooms or when stapling into walls which then disturbed the asbestos materials behind.
Mesothelioma is sadly incurable and whilst there are now a number of treatments that can help alleviate the symptoms, it is unfortunately a fight that cannot be won. Between 2003 and 2012, 21,957 people lost their battle with mesothelioma, with 224 of those having worked in the teaching profession.
In 2012 there were 1,514 Welsh schools which were noted to have contained asbestos. Shockingly, this amounts to 85% of schools in Wales. This is a huge number and this is why it is so important that a policy for asbestos control in Welsh schools is drawn up soon.
Cenric Clement-Evans, a lawyer from “the Right to Know: Asbestos in Schools Wales campaign” has spoken to the BBC about the issue. He would like the government to set up an advisory group with a view to creating a policy for Wales. However, there is some uncertainty over who is responsible for this. Mr Clement-Evans said “I don’t care who takes responsibility…This is too important to get embroiled in some form of party politics or some big issues between the Welsh government and the UK government.”
What is certain is that something needs to be done to ensure that both adults and children in schools are not exposed to asbestos in the future. Asbestos conditions are completely preventable. In order to stop the asbestos legacy we must ensure everyone is aware of the dangers of asbestos and how to deal with it.