An article in The Times brings the ongoing asbestos threat in UK schools in the UK once again into sharp focus. According to a National Audit Office survey, over 21,000 schools still contain asbestos, with 24,000 schools now beyond their initial design life. Although banned in 1999 for use in construction, the material continues to cause mesothelioma, a rare and incurable cancer. Media reports reveal that over the last forty years, more than 10,000 teachers and pupils have died as a result of asbestos exposure. Earlier this year, the Trade Union Congress reported that hundreds of NHS buildings across the capital and Scotland still contain asbestos.
The naturally occurring mineral was popular in construction between the 1950s and the 1980s. Today, it is still present in ceiling and garage roof tiles, insulation pipes, boilers, and spray coatings. Because of its varied use, it can be challenging to identify and isolate its risks in buildings and mitigate the asbestos threat.
In April, Conservative MP Jane Hunt told the House of Commons that the Health and Safety Executive estimates that “between 210,000 and 400,000 buildings in the UK contain asbestos.
“However, other sources say that there are about 6 million tonnes of asbestos, spread across approximately 1.5 million buildings—the most asbestos per capita in Europe.”
“Asbestos exposure is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with the HSE estimating that more than 5,000 people die from asbestos-related cancers every year. More than half of those deaths are from mesothelioma, a type of cancer that can occur on the lining of the lung or the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract. Shockingly, according to the HSE, the UK has the highest rate of mesothelioma deaths per capita in the world.”
Asbestos threat in schools and NHS buildings remains
Hundreds of NHS buildings across London and Scotland contain asbestos. The carcinogenic is present in over 450 NHS premises in the capital and nearly 700 in Scotland.
Campaigners fear a significant rise in mesothelioma cases over the next 30 or 40 years if authorities fail to remove the material. The Times reports that fatality numbers will likely fall in line with reduced exposure due to the 1999 ban. But as buildings containing asbestos age, risks increase.
Experts fear the government’s refitting plans could dislodge harmful fibres, with campaigners urging the government to simultaneously remove the asbestos. MP Sir Stephen Timms, chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, who set a 40-year deadline for the removal of all asbestos from public buildings across the UK, said:
“Lots of work will be done to retrofit buildings for net zero goals, and lots of asbestos will get disturbed. This is a good opportunity to remove all asbestos at the same time.”
The non-political Joint Union Asbestos Committee, which represents nine educational unions, was set up to campaign for the removal of asbestos from schools and to educate on asbestos management and risks.
Think-tank ResPublica called on the government to reform its policies to protect nurses and teachers from asbestos-related deaths. Current government policy in many places is to leave asbestos undisturbed.
The 2021-2022 Health and Safety Executive Report states:
TUC report accuses the government of “turning a blind eye”
Earlier this year, the TUC called on the government to introduce legislation to require the removal of asbestos from all public buildings. It accused the Conservative government of “turning a blind eye” to the present and ongoing asbestos threat.
The organisation, together with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health, commissioned the Labour Research Department (LRD), which found that two-thirds of NHS buildings surveyed still contained asbestos despite the 1999 ban.
TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said:
“The only way to protect today’s workers and future generations is through the safe removal of asbestos from all workplaces and public buildings. We need national government to work with local authorities on a plan to remove it from every last building.”
The TUC wants a future Labour administration to include asbestos removal in the Climate Investment Pledge-funded public building retrofit programme.