David Morris: Asbestos continues to be a danger in workplaces – and it’s teachers who are at increased risk

24 Jul

David Morris is Member of Parliament for Morecambe and Lunesdale.

Asbestos is the nation’s number one occupational killer. Over twenty years after the use of this deadly substance was banned, it is still causing more than 5,500 deaths a year.

Most deaths occur among those who formerly worked with asbestos, before the ban in 1999, and those who still come into contact with it, namely workers in building trades such as plumbers-heating engineers, and electricians. Yet, there is a new demographic that lives and works at increased risk.

Eighty per cent of British schools contain asbestos. As a result, there is a worrying increase in death rates among teachers, a profession not traditionally linked to working with the deadly material.

The think tank ResPublica draws attention to this in its campaign Airtight on Asbestos, which shows that teachers are five times more likely than average to develop mesothelioma, the disease most closely linked to asbestos inhalation. Since 1980, there have been almost 300 recorded deaths from mesothelioma among teachers in the UK. Of that total, 177 have occurred since 2001.

The current policy in relation to monitoring the material in schools is confined to its management in-situ. This means monitoring and controlling for the condition in which asbestos is kept and maintained over time.

However, air monitoring is not a routine activity. It is only undertaken where asbestos is being removed or treated. Even in these circumstances monitoring cannot provide assurance of a “safe” level for everyday use in these buildings. Unlike France and Germany, the UK does not have a legislated “environmental limit” for the amount of asbestos fibres that can be permitted in a school or any other building.

The UK’s current regime allows a “clearance level” of airborne asbestos of 0.01 fibres per cubic centimetre of air (0.01 f/cm3) on completion of asbestos remediation. This is five times greater than the “environmental limit” allowed in France (0.005 f/cm3) and ten times greater than the acceptable “occupational exposure limit” in Germany (0.001 f/cm3).

So the UK’s standards for monitoring airborne asbestos fibres in schools are well behind those of other countries. To make matters worse, the data which spells out the correct safety limits of airborne fibres continues to be ignored. According to research (Hodgson and Darnton, 2000) asbestos fibre levels for children in schools should not exceed 0.0001 f/cm3. Yet we do nothing in the UK to assure either teachers or parents that this limit is adhered to.

There is, in the UK, a lack of awareness, or interest in the scientific evidence for other microscopy regimes. The HSE is duty bound to adopt best practice, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, but have refused to acknowledge that there are proven alternatives because they do not accept that we may have an ongoing problem with exposure to unsafe levels of asbestos.

These observations raise serious questions about what the UK considers proper health and safety in its schools, compared to other developed European nations. By continuing on our current path, we are risking the lives of all those who enter school buildings.

It is worth pausing to reflect on the analysis of one US study, which found that for every teacher who dies from mesothelioma at work, nine pupils can be expected to develop the fatal disease.

The UK’s health and safety regime starts with the presumption that the management of asbestos in-situ is safe, with minimum disturbance, and a remote risk of exposure.

This is not plausible given the amount of asbestos that remains in our school buildings. Other countries with national asbestos plans, enhanced testing, and phased removal targets accept that asbestos in-situ is deteriorating and will release fibres. So why does the UK assume that all asbestos in-situ is safe?

Other European nations have clearly introduced higher standards for asbestos air monitoring, despite having far lower death rates from asbestos-related diseases. Yet the UK remains blind to this best practice and blind to what fibres it can see in the atmosphere.

We have a particular duty to use best practices of air monitoring to determine whether certain schools in this country should remain standing. Our asbestos laden CLASP schools, for example, have been in use since the 1950s and are long past their sell-by-date. Shamefully, many of them will open their doors once more to children and teachers once term time commences.

Adopting the best practices for air monitoring would allow us to identify the worst levels of exposure in any given school building, which could then spur an evidence-led programme of removal to ensure they no longer pose a major health risk to staff and pupils.

Ultimately, such measures will lead to fewer teachers and school children dying prematurely. We must realise how far behind we are in these basic procedures, and what it is doing to such an essential arm of the public sector.

If nothing else, we must learn the right lessons from the past four months. We can no longer afford to ignore hard evidence, nor take for granted those who stand to lose the most from such oversight.