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Blog: Asbestos in schools: The Government must do better!

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Asbestos in schools: The Government must do better!
John Spencer | 08 Apr 2015

Mesothelioma is a huge problem in Great Britain. In fact, the UK is the mesothelioma incidence capital of the world.

An estimated 53,000 people will die from mesothelioma in Great Britain over the next 25 years, according to work and pensions minister Lord Freud in March. The figure is based on the latest projections of annual mesothelioma deaths by the Health and Safety Executive. The statistics are shameful ones. One small but vital part of these statistics highlighted that there is quite clearly more to be done in making our schools safer from the danger of asbestos.

The Government’s long-awaited, and eight months overdue review ‘The Management of Asbestos in Schools’ was published last month. The report calls for funding for the appropriate removal of asbestos, better and more targeted guidance, enhanced accountability for duty holders, and a better evidence base. So far so good.

However, with regard to evidence, an ideal opportunity was missed to establish a firm factual basis from which to plan an effective strategy through excluding asbestos from the Department for Education’s survey on the condition of school buildings. The error is compounded by the review’s failure to rectify this obvious mistake. As campaign group Asbestos in Schools (AiS) has powerfully stated:

The Government is unaware of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in our schools. The review has made no attempt to rectify this. The DfE completed a two year survey recently on the condition of school buildings. It specifically excluded asbestos. Asbestos is likely to be one of the most expensive items when maintaining, refurbishing or demolishing a school. Further, schools with the most dangerous materials cannot be identified, priorities cannot be set and any financial forecasts will be meaningless. The report goes no further than saying they will keep their decision to exclude asbestos from the collation of data under review.

The review acknowledges that former pupils have died because of their asbestos exposure at school, but it fails to estimate the numbers who will die. The evidence it fails to include is that between 200 and 300 people could die each year from their asbestos exposure as a child at school in the 1960 and 1970s. Most of the asbestos remains, and there is evidence the exposures continue. The report acknowledges that school teachers and support staff are dying of the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma. 158 school teachers have died in the last ten years and 291 have died since 1980. Over a twenty year period between 4,000 and 6,000 people could die. That is an appalling death toll just from the simple act of attending school”’

The absence of a proper factual analysis overshadows the essential and overdue steps the review rightly identifies. Any organisational plan requires an adequate factual analysis of the problem. Tragically without it, it is feared that mesothelioma incidence in our schools will not be significantly improved. So is there another way? AiS cites the USA as a better model than our own Government’s inadequate review:

"Evidence was given how other countries have tackled the problem. More than thirty years ago the USA carried out a similar review of their asbestos policy for schools. It determined the extent of friable asbestos in their schools, estimated the number of staff and former pupils who would die. Because it acknowledged the increased risks to children it adopted asbestos laws specifically for schools. In contrast we have still not taken the preliminary steps of assessing the scale of the problem and the risks. Both of these are central to any risk assessment or any cost benefit analysis."

What then is the comparative performance of the USA in terms of hard facts? In 2012 the incidence in the UK was 39.2 per million per annum of the population, and it is increasing. In the USA incidence has stabilised since 1999 at less than 14 per million per annum. It established the scale of the asbestos problem in schools and estimated that for every teacher and support staff death from mesothelioma nine former pupils would die. Consequently in 1986 they introduced stringent asbestos regulation for schools.

Action to survey is vital and urgent, just as it was with the distribution of the child meningitis vaccine. The Government here too must be shamed into action.

Past blog entries

There is a cost to caring, but it is a cost worth paying, 28 Feb 2017
Decisions to come in 2017, 06 Jan 2017
Claims Management Companies – the Dragon that Needs Slaying, 19 Dec 2016
Personal injury reform: Back to the dark ages , 23 Nov 2016
If the NHS was an airline, we'd never dare to fly, 03 Oct 2016
Car insurance premiums - a matter of trust?, 31 Aug 2016
New Government, new opportunity?, 11 Aug 2016
Let's mention the good news in the NHSLA annual report, 29 Jul 2016

About this blog

John Spencer

A lawyer for more than 28 years, John Spencer is president of APIL and has been a member since 1995, and became a senior fellow in 2014.

He has been co-opted onto the Civil Procedure Rules Sub-Committee and is a member of the Civil Justice Council.