Silent killer lurking in our schools

Are our schools safe?

Are our schools safe?

ALMOST 1,000 schools across Northern Ireland still contain potentially deadly asbestos, it can be revealed today.

An investigation by The Detail has found that a number of schools are “safely managing” crocidolite, which is considered the most deadly form of the dangerous material.

And two of the education boards have also confirmed that they have paid out thousands of pounds following legal claims from people claiming illness/disease or death was caused by asbestos.

The five education boards have released statistics and information on how they are containing asbestos within their schools following a Freedom of Information request from The Detail.

Key points in the education boards’ responses include:

• An insurance company paid an out of court settlement of £22,500 after legal action was taken against the North Eastern Education Board.

• The South Eastern Education Board has confirmed that five schools contain crocidolite which is considered the most hazardous asbestos fibre. This board also needs £200,000 for “proposed planned removal programmes” during 2011/12. It is not clear whether or not this funding has been secured.

• Belfast Education Board claims: “Due to the age and construction of many of the buildings, complete asbestos removal from all schools is neither physically nor financially feasible.”

• The Western Education Board has advised the Department of Education that an estimated cost for the removal of all asbestos from its schools would be £480,000.

• The Southern Education Board needs £510,000 to pay for asbestos work in schools.

Asbestos is hazardous when damaged, disturbed or dismantled. When asbestos fibres are inhaled they can cause serious diseases – including lung cancer – which are responsible for around 4,000 deaths a year across the UK.

Asbestos was used widely in the construction of public buildings for years, including schools. The three main types are crocidolite (‘blue’ asbestos), amosite (brown) and chrysotile (white). They are all classified as Class 1 cancer-causing carcinogens.

The import and use of blue and brown asbestos in the UK has been banned since 1985, and the import and use of white asbestos has been banned since November 1999. However, the advice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is that asbestos containing material which is not likely to be disturbed and is not in a dangerous condition should be left in place.

However, this does not guarantee pupil safety. Earlier this year, around 70 primary pupils were exposed to asbestos at a primary school in Berkshire in England when a science lesson explosion lifted ceiling tiles and released dust into the school hall.

One local teaching union representative is concerned that the government’s budget cuts could have an impact on the asbestos situation here.

The education budget for Northern Ireland this financial year is down £100m on last year, it will be reduced by a further £186m next year, another £228m the following year and another £305m the year after this.

Mark Langhammer, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Northern Ireland, said: “There really is no capital budget for schools and just a rudimentary maintenance budget.

“The health and safety experts will tell you that it is often safer to contain asbestos rather than disrupting it but that is down to an expert view. If any of the asbestos problems are serious, even though the education board has a legal duty to do something about it, they may simply now not have the money.”

The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) is a coordinating group of 10 trade unions including six of the main teaching unions.

They are concerned that the numbers of people who have suffered ill health or have died as a result of asbestos exposure is “unacceptably high” and seek ultimately for all asbestos to be removed from schools.

The group claims that 228 school teachers in the UK have died of the rare form of cancer mesothelioma since 1980 with 140 dying in the last 10 years. Other school support staff, like caretakers and cleaners, have also died from the disease.

Personal injury solicitor Julie Winn is chair of JUAC.

She said: “All of the asbestos in our schools is old and we suspect that much of it is deteriorating.

“All schools should identify their asbestos and a policy should be adopted of phased removal, prioritising the most dangerous asbestos materials first.

“If parents are not informed of the presence of asbestos in their children’s schools and an incident occurs feelings of mistrust and anger can follow. In contrast, in the USA parents must be given an annual report on the presence and condition of any asbestos and the measures taken to manage it.

“This policy of openness doesn’t create panic, but it does mean that staff and parents are aware of the dangers of asbestos and the best measures to be implemented to ensure the safety of the occupants of their schools.”

Our first Freedom of Information request was submitted to the Department of Education and asked a series of questions about asbestos in schools. The response stated that the department did not hold information on how many schools in Northern Ireland contain asbestos but advised that the information could be obtained from the education boards.

The reply said that the boards have drawn up management action plans for managing asbestos and that when any asbestos related problems arise work is carried out to assess the risk and resolve the problem immediately.

Surprisingly, the department also does not hold information on funding required for asbestos work for the schools’ estate. However, it did confirm that the September 2008 monitoring round bid from the department of £2.1m for asbestos work in schools was not successful.

In relation to legal claims, the department response stated: “The Department of Education has not received any claims for alleged illness/disability caused by asbestos being in department buildings or when asbestos was being removed.”

The department also does not hold any records on the reason or cause of teachers’ deaths or information on pupil/support staff deaths from mesothelioma. There has been no legal action taken against the department for illnesses relating to asbestos and the department also does not have an asbestos compensation fund.

Following this response, we submitted a Freedom of Information request to each of the five education and library boards. We also put a series of additional questions to the Department of Education’s press office.

In response to our questions, a department spokesman said that the department takes asbestos and other health and safety issues very seriously and aims, within the constraints of a prioritised budget, to mitigate any risks identified.

He continued: “The education and library boards (ELBs) arrange for asbestos surveys of the schools’ estate to be carried out and if high risk areas are identified then arrangements for removal are made.

“Where it is not considered necessary to remove the asbestos immediately, the boards and other school authorities are responsible for managing the asbestos safely.

“The Department is aware of the extent of the issues in the estate associated with asbestos but the information and detail with regard to the asbestos in the schools’ estate is held and kept up to date by the ELBs and the other school authorities.

“Asbestos is still present in some areas of the schools estate, however it should be borne in mind that as long as the asbestos is not damaged or located somewhere where it can be easily damaged it is not deemed to be a risk.”

Our second article outlines the education boards’ responses.