Mesothelioma, an aggressive form of asbestos-related cancer, is responsible for around 2,500 deaths in the UK every year. In some cases, the victims are unaware that they have even been exposed to asbestos and it can be decades before any symptoms of illness begin to show.
In the past, asbestos-related conditions have generally been considered to be ‘industrial’ diseases, but evidence is growing that people going through, or working in, the education sector can also find themselves victims of asbestos exposure and the resulting health consequences of this.
Asbestos is a substance which was used widely in construction until it was banned from use in the UK in 1999. This means that many UK schools constructed before this change in legislation will contain asbestos in some areas, with Freedom of Information requests indicating that this is the case in around 86% of UK schools.
According to the National Union of Teachers (NUT), more than 200 teachers or school support staff have died from mesothelioma since 2001 and the rate is increasing, with 40 deaths a year between 2015-2016. A study by the American Environmental Protection Agency estimates that for every death of a member of school staff due to asbestos exposure, nine former pupils can also be expected to die, which equates to around 360 former UK students a year losing their lives because they were exposed to asbestos as school children.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) considers properly managed asbestos, which is away from people and remains undisturbed, to be ‘very low risk’ to those working or learning in a school building. However, if the asbestos is in an area that could be disturbed, by anything from building renovations to a teacher sticking a pin through a display board or a ceiling tile becoming displaced, then exposure is possible. An NUT survey from 2017 found that although 47% of the teachers they surveyed had been told their school contained some asbestos, around half of those teachers were not told where it was located within the building.
It is a legal requirement for employers to inform employees about any asbestos risks and take the necessary steps to protect them from exposure. However, when it comes to pupils and parents, schools are currently under no obligation to inform them if any of their buildings contain asbestos. In a recent interview filmed for the BBC’s Inside Out North West TV programme, National Education Union (NEU) representative, Peter Middleman, said that he felt “Schools are reluctant to admit that asbestos is present on their premises, in my view, because there is a legitimate stigma attached and if parents have a choice of schools, of some that have asbestos present and some that don’t, then they would vote with their feet. As schools’ funding is determined by the number of pupils, there is a disincentive to come clean about the scale of the problem.
“Government complacency is informed by the administrative cost of meeting our demand to remove – rather than conceal – asbestos in schools, which would cost billions.
“It has concluded it is cheaper to let people die than remove asbestos; but, if the problem was not shrouded in secrecy and if the true extent was widely known, the political pressure to do something would be intense.”
At Dedicated Accident Solicitors, we regularly meet people who have been devastated by the consequences of asbestos exposure, whether as victims themselves or as family members. The idea that even now, in 2018, teachers, school staff and children might be being put at risk in buildings where asbestos is known to be present, whilst those responsible for their welfare do not seem to be prioritising any action to resolve the issue, is something we feel strongly about. Sadly, we expect to see a rise over the coming years in teachers, school staff and former pupils contacting us for legal advice on how they can get a measure of justice for their asbestos-related disease, which occurred as a consequence of simply being in a school building where proper care was not taken by those in charge.
For more information about mesothelioma or other asbestos-related conditions, browse our Asbestos Hub.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bhnkg0/inside-out-north-west-03092018 (available on iPlayer until 3rd October 2018)