About the campaign
The threat of asbestos did not disappear with its ban in 1999. It can be found in 80% of schools across the UK, meaning everyday millions of children learn and grow up alongside a substance that if inhaled, irritates the lung tissue, causing scarring and chronic disease. In some cases, exposure can cause cancerous tumors to form, known as mesothelioma – killing 2500 people every year. Since 2001, at least 305 teaching and education professionals have died of exposure.
The Health and Safety Executive sets the rules for asbestos and believes the substance is best managed rather than removed, assigning responsibility for this to a school’s ‘duty holder’. The problem is, this approach assumes that the site manager always identifies asbestos accurately, knows when it has been disturbed, and acts appropriately afterwards. When deadly particles can be released into the air by something as routine as a door slam, this simply isn’t robust enough.
The risk of teachers and children inhaling asbestos particles could be reduced if we matched the vigilance of other countries. Unlike many nations, the UK does not carry out routine air monitoring in schools containing asbestos. We could also lower the risk by replacing school buildings that are past their design life. Many contain high levels of asbestos yet are still being used as classrooms. The HSE says asbestos related deaths today are the result of exposures that predate the existing rules. But why take the risk? Asbestos is a silent killer and symptoms often develop decades after fibres have been inhaled. How can we be sure that today’s teachers and children aren’t being exposed? Unless we act now, there's a risk that by the time they live long enough to see the effects of asbestos poisoning, it will already be too late.
To reduce the risk of teachers and children inhaling asbestos particles, we’re calling for the following changes:
1. Routinely monitor the air our children and teachers breathe in schools - Until this takes place, we will not be able to identify which school environments are unsafe, and equally, how exposed children and schoolteachers are.
2. Introduce a safe environmental limit for airborne asbestos fibres – When asbestos has been removed or disturbed, UK law does insist on air monitoring being undertaken. However, the standards used to determine whether a building is safe to use simply aren’t high enough. As a result, we allow schoolchildren in the UK to breathe up to 10 times more airborne asbestos particles than Germany does.
3. Replace CLASP and system built schools – Introduced in the 50's, ‘CLASP’ and system built schools are known to contain large amounts of the most harmful forms of asbestos. Over 3000 of these structures are still being used as classrooms everyday, in some cases decades past their design life. Because of their age and deteriorating condition, many require frequent maintenance work. This is a particular concern as it can result in asbestos being disturbed, increasing the likelihood of exposure. We're calling on the government to prioritise their replacement.
'Airtight on Asbestos' has been supported by the independent asbestos campaigner Charles Pickles, whom ResPublica would like to thank for his contribution