More than a dozen teachers die every year from asbestos-related disease, and campaigners believe the casualty rate could rise. Steven Hastings assesses the threat posed by the deadly fibres that are present in thousands of UK classrooms
When Michael Lees's wife died aged 51 from mesothelioma - cancer of the lung lining - he wanted to know where and when she had been exposed to the asbestos fibres that caused the condition. Finding out wasn't easy; Gina had taught for 30 years and worked in more than 20 schools. "Asbestos was present in the majority of them," he says.
It is not surprising that so many of Gina's former workplaces contained asbestos: 13,000 of the UK's 24,000 schools were built between 1945 and 1975, when asbestos was a common material in the construction industry. But many headteachers are shocked to discover that their premises are contaminated by asbestos.
"One school I know of was unaware of any asbestos, but it was in the ceiling of every room and corridor," says Mr Lees, who never expected to spend five years investigating his wife's death. "One of Gina's classrooms contained asbestos insulation board, which was damaged every day for years."
Asbestos was once used for everything from lagging pipes to making safety equipment in school laboratories. But it is asbestos insulation boards, used for wall or ceiling panels, which cause most concern because they are especially vulnerable to wear and tear. They also tend to contain amosite (brown asbestos), which is 100 times more deadly than the chrysolite (white asbestos) typically used in asbestos cement.
Pinning up children's work might not seem much of a health hazard but Dr Robin Howie, an occupational hygiene consultant, has run tests showing that removing a single pin from asbestos board can release around 6,000 fibres.
He is wary of labelling any exposure as low risk; in theory a single fibre can cause a tumour. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has disputed Dr Howie's findings, but in April, following an investigation by the Government's scientific advisory committee, Watch, it issued guidance stating that teachers should not stick pins in asbestos panels, while insisting that the potential risk was "very low".
Elizabeth Bradford, aged 68, was recently diagnosed with mesothelioma and believes it is the result of pinning children's work to walls in a mobile classroom more than 25 years ago. "The cleaner came out in a rash whenever she entered the room," says Ms Bradford. "I asked the school to carry out an inspection and was told that there was asbestos present, but that because it was white asbestos it was safe. I carried on working in that room for another two years. I was a teacher, not a scientist or a builder.
I just took their word for it."
According to HSE figures, more than 140 education professionals died of mesothelioma between 1991 and 2000. But Mr Lees, Ms Bradford and Dr Howie believe a greater tragedy could be unfolding. "All the time I was working in that classroom there were children present," says Ms Bradford.
Children are closer to surfaces where dust gathers and, significantly, mesothelioma takes 20 to 50 years to develop, which means they are more likely than adults to live long enough to contract the condition. Dr Howie estimates that a five-year-old is four times more likely to develop mesothelioma than a 30-year-old teacher.
And today's children may be at more risk than earlier generations. Schools built using asbestos were often expected to last around 30 years; as they reach their retirement date, the chance of fibre release increases. The ICT revolution hasn't helped either. "It's not unusual to find caretakers have drilled holes in asbestos boarding to install sockets or cables," says Andy Ellis of the Noble Health and Safety Consultancy, in Devon.
The long gestation period for mesothelioma, and the fact that it can be caused by sustained low-level exposure, means legal claims are complicated.
Although dozens of teachers have died, only a handful have received compensation. Teachers who have moved from school to school often find it difficult to make a case.
Adrian Budgen, of Irwin Mitchell Solicitors, represents a science teacher with mesothelioma and is researching her past. "She spent years working with asbestos Bunsen burner mats, so that may have played a part," he says.
"But we have to consider possible exposure from childhood onwards. It's not straightforward."
Both Mr Budgen and Graham Clayton, the NUT's solicitor, urge teachers to log details of asbestos exposure and record as much evidence as possible.
But many teachers are not aware they have been exposed, often because schools fear that disclosure will spark panic. At one primary school in Islington, for example, staff were told in March 2004 that classrooms were closed for "electrical work" when the real problem was asbestos levels. And although the Freedom of Information Act means state schools must disclose asbestos survey results on request, independent schools are under no such obligation.
The last school in which Gina Lees taught refused to warn pupils and staff they had been exposed to asbestos, even after Mr Lees had highlighted the problem. "It's not just the right to know," he says. "In the future there may be a treatment for mesothelioma. Knowing you were exposed could be important information."
The HSE advises that asbestos-containing materials "in good condition", which are unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, should be left in place "under a system of management". But this may not be as straightforward as it appears. Dr Howie's research suggests that even asbestos in good condition could be dangerous, potentially causing 13 deaths every five years, although by the time the deaths occur, in middle age at the earliest, tracking the cause back to school may be impossible.
Ofsted inspectors rarely check asbestos management plans, and a survey this year by removal contractors found that fewer than one in 10 schools had the legally required management plan in place. In recent years, well publicised cases of mismanagement have included a Derby primary whose head was suspended after authorising the removal of windows containing asbestos with children working nearby; a Birmingham school where contractors left asbestos in a heap in the road; and a Lincolnshire secondary school whose caretaker made children break up asbestos panels as a punishment. It's hardly surprising that some people are sceptical about schools' ability to manage asbestos safely.
The UK has been slow to tackle the issue. In the United States, schools must be surveyed every three years, and inform parents annually of updates to the asbestos management plan; in Ireland the government has pledged to remove all asbestos from schools. In the UK, however, plans by the HSE to launch an "asbestos in schools" campaign have been shelved in order to focus resources on workers in higher-risk occupations. Mr Lees believes this is simply not good enough and would like to see the HSE taking a more active role. "I told the HSE that a certain school contained asbestos but had no system of managing it, so the children and staff remained at risk. I asked them to inspect the school, but they never did."
Kevin Walkin, head of asbestos policy at the HSE, says it is a question of diverting resources to where they are most needed. "HSE has reviewed and developed the way it works to ensure that resources are targeted at those areas where they can make the most difference," he says. "Research shows that the group most at risk from asbestos exposure are building maintenance and repair workers."
The best hope is that the Building Schools for the Future programme should eventually mean fewer schools contain asbestos. In the meantime, many local authorities remove asbestos wherever possible. However, the cost of specialist removal means even the best-intentioned authorities can't do as much as they might like. "We have a rolling programme of removal with an annual budget of pound;200,000," says Andrea Richards of Rhondda Cynon Taff council, which surveys all its schools and recently closed Maesgwyn special school to remove traces of asbestos. "But I could spend millions and still not get rid of it all. We have so many schools from the 60s and 70s. Give me a budget of Pounds 10 million, and I could it spend it in a single year."
For Michael Lees it is an issue that cannot be ignored. "It has taken many thousands of hours and has occupied at least two-thirds of my time," he says. "Schools have been obstructive, building contractors have been obtuse, LEAs have tried to cover their inadequacies, and the HSE has hindered rather than assisted. But my research shows that of the 20 schools Gina worked in, asbestos was present in over half of them."
Concerned NUT members should contact the NUT on 0207 388 6191, or at www.teachers.org.uk. More information at www.mesothelioma.uk.com. To read more about Michael Lees's campaign go to: www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk
ASBESTOS: THE FACTS
Asbestos is derived from a natural mineral mined from metamorphic rock in Africa, Australia and the US, and around six million tonnes were imported to the UK in the 20th century. Brown and blue asbestos were made illegal in the mid 1980s, but white asbestos wasn't banned until 1999. Asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung. Mesothelioma is a particular concern to teachers, since it can be caused by relatively low levels of exposure; onset is typically 20 to 50 years after exposure. Symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pains.
The condition is incurable, and there are often only a few months between diagnosis and death.
Most of the estimated 3,500 asbestos-related deaths in the UK every year are linked to construction industries. But between 1991 and 2000, more than 140 education workers died of mesothelioma.
Minute quantities of asbestos are always present in the air, but one estimate suggests that female and male teachers are, respectively, three times and 10 times more likely to die of mesothelioma than if they were exposed only to background levels of asbestos.
Nor is this just a UK anomaly. In Australia, a chief medical adviser recently expressed concern that teachers were "over-represented" in mesothelioma statistics. And in the US, a health department register of jobs with "significantly elevated" mesothelioma rates lists "plumbers, pipe fitters, steam fitters, mechanical engineers, electricians and elementary school teachers".
Many schools contain asbestos. This is true of other public buildings, but statistics suggest a female teacher is twice as likely to die of mesothelioma as a female nurse. Chairs knocking against walls, pupils pushing in corridors, and bags bashing into storage heaters can all cause asbestos fibres to be released. Vandalism is another factor. Asbestos surveyors have encountered "kicked-in" panelling, and one HSE report refers to children "kicking asbestos dust around like snow".
SCHOOLS AND THE LAW
The 2002 Control of Asbestos at Work regulations require the "duty holder"
(the LEA or governors) to tell employees of the whereabouts of asbestos if there is a chance they might disturb it. Schools must also have an up-to-date asbestos management plan. However, the regulations don't require schools to carry out a professional survey, or to remove asbestos. The NUT, meanwhile, has called for compulsory surveys and removal wherever possible.