Asbestos death: pound;290k payout

27th March 2009 at 00:00
Teacher's widow compensated after husband's exposure to deadly material in science labs

The widow of a senior teacher who died after exposure to asbestos in school science labs has been awarded pound;290,000 in compensation.

The former chemistry teacher, who taught at the same school in East Sussex for 34 years, died from mesothelioma in September 2007, aged 61, just a year after retirement. He was exposed to asbestos in equipment used for science experiments and demonstrations in class.

His widow, who has chosen to remain anonymous, is urging all school staff to be vigilant in protecting themselves against risks and to seek urgent medical help if they have concerns.

"My husband always wanted to teach," she said. "He never thought of doing anything else - it was his life. He always put his pupils and school first.

"You only need to be exposed to such a small amount of asbestos and it can kill you. My husband just didn't know what danger he was exposing himself to on a daily basis.

"We were both looking forward to doing what we wanted to do on his retirement. We had just returned from a great holiday when my husband was diagnosed, and within five months he was dead."

The compensation payout from East Sussex council comes as renewed emphasis has been placed on the dangers of asbestos in school buildings. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is surveying local authorities on whether they are following rules to minimise the chances of pupils and teachers being exposed to asbestos.

But Paul Rowen, Liberal Democrat MP for Rochdale and a former deputy headteacher, wants the Government to go further amid fears that local authority performance is highly variable.

"The problem is that everyone is passing the buck and saying it's someone else's responsibility," he said. "Information I have obtained from local authorities shows that between 75 and 90 per cent of schools still have asbestos.

"There are no rules under the Building Schools for the Future programme that asbestos has to be removed when schools are refurbished. I find that ridiculous."

Mr Rowen wants an anonymous survey of 100 schools to assess danger levels. Until action is taken, asbestos is a "ticking time bomb" that is putting teachers' and pupils' health at risk, he said.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, described the East Sussex case as "desperately sad".

"Although no amount of compensation can turn the clock back or bring back loved ones, at least this member's family has got some justice," she said. "We are seriously worried about the continuing risk to school staff and pupils from asbestos because so little is known about where it is."

A spokeswoman for East Sussex Council said the authority was committed to providing a safe environment for employees and pupils.

Dr Bousted said the ATL had 400 members nationwide who knew they had been exposed to asbestos and were living in fear of developing health problems.

Even these figures are the "tip of the iceberg" because many people are unaware that they have been exposed to asbestos until they become ill, she added.

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive show that 182 people working in education in Britain died from mesothelioma between 1980 and 2000, although actual figures are likely to be higher because work-related deaths are only recorded if the victim is below the age of 74.

Fibres spell danger

Asbestos was widely used in buildings, including schools, hospitals and houses, from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, particularly for fire-proofing and insulation. Kept in good condition, asbestos is safe. Dangers arise when it is damaged and fibres become airborne. Breathing these in can lead to fatal diseases and accounts for around 3,500 deaths a year in Britain.

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