Asbestos has been disturbed at schools in a way that could affect the health of staff and pupils on at least 90 separate occasions in the last five years, Schools Week can exclusively reveal.
Although all forms of the deadly substance have been banned as building materials for decades, it is found in about 85 per cent of schools – and was reported to councils as having been “disturbed” on 93 occasions over five years, meaning “possible exposure” to teachers, builders, caretakers or pupils between 2011 and 2016, according to Freedom of Information requests.
Campaigners say these accidental disturbances call into question the government’s claims that the presence of asbestos – which causes several aggressive forms of cancer – in schools is safe if not disturbed.
At one school, balloons released during a science experiment knocked asbestos in the ceiling to the floor – forcing all teachers and pupils to change their clothes. In another, a Second World War mask pupils held to their faces was found to contain crocidolite, the most lethal blue form of asbestos.
A spokesperson for the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said teaching unions were joining forces to call for the proactive removal of asbestos in as many schools as possible, and to ensure all staff were properly trained about its handling.
“How can you ever guarantee that asbestos is not going to be disturbed?” asked Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT.
“What might be safe in an office is not suitable in a school; there are footballs being kicked and teachers pinning into walls.”
Hobby added that the Department for Education (DfE) was “simply not taking the risk of asbestos in schools and academies seriously enough”.
If it’s being managed so well in schools, then they wouldn’t be disturbing it
A National Audit Office report released last month found asbestos was a “potentially dangerous issue” in most schools, and warned it could be disturbed by “unruly” pupils or teachers attaching work to walls.
Lucie Stephens, an asbestos campaigner, said her findings “completely call into question the guidance from the government of safe-if-not-disturbed”.
“If it’s being managed so well in schools, then they wouldn’t be disturbing it,” she said. “Saying ‘it’s safe’ is just the government trying to wash their hands.”
Asbestos, which comes in three main forms, was used as insulation and fireproofing in non-domestic buildings from the 1920s to the 1980s. The more deadly brown and blue varieties were banned in 1985, while the use of white asbestos was finally stopped in 1999. All schools built before 2000 are assumed to contain asbestos.
The FoI requests to councils revealed asbestos had been disturbed in 51 schools over the past five years – a figure campaigners described as “the tip of the iceberg”, since many teachers do not recognise asbestos when they find it.
In Lancashire, primary school teachers rummaging in a store room found damaged asbestos around a pipe. An administration officer in Milton Keynes similarly “disturbed asbestos pipe lagging” in a cupboard while moving archives.
Meanwhile, a contractor working “in breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act” disturbed asbestos at a Cambridgeshire primary school. Another “put his foot through the ceiling into the empty classroom below” out of school hours.
One school even had to evacuate its premises. Whiston Academy in Rotherham was forced to move into another building in 2013 after refurbishment works “identified asbestos in the ceiling”. Pupils could only return after air safety tests had been carried out.
The Health and Safety Executive, which sets asbestos regulations and describes it as “the hidden killer”, holds that “as long as asbestos is in good condition, well-managed and unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, it is not a significant risk to the health of teachers and pupils”.
As long as asbestos is in good condition, well-managed and unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, it is not a significant risk
Nevertheless, councils have paid out more than £10 million in compensation claims to teachers and former pupils for exposure to asbestos over the past five years.
Almost 250 staff and former pupils made claims for asbestos exposure between 2011 and 2016, with just under half (48 per cent) winning compensation. The claimants all had mesothelioma, a cancer which develops as a result of asbestos exposure.
Among the claimants was an ex-pupil in Devon who, along with four school staff members, said they had been victims of negligent management of asbestos at school. All but one member of the group won their case.
In the past five years Haringey council paid out £329,922 for three claims, Birmingham paid £500,000 for five claims and Durham paid £225,680 to just one claimant last year.
Peter Williams, head of asbestos claims at the law firm Fieldfisher, said claims take three months to one year to settle, because councils have to trawl through so much historical evidence.
Pupils are less likely than staff to remember exposure incidents, making it harder for them to prove negligence, he added.
Chris Wallace: The Pupil
Chris Wallace was diagnosed with mesothelioma nine years ago at the age 31, after being exposed to it as a pupil in Devon.
“I remember the asbestos very clearly, as there were a lot of lessons down in the basement where there were overhead asbestos-lagged pipes. This was in north Devon during the late 80s and early 90s. I remember lots of boys, myself included, liked to swing on the pipes, and the chalky asbestos dust came off onto our hands and clothing.
“I also remember the prefab temporary classrooms. The walls were thin and got damaged really easily, and in areas where there were holes I used to put my hand through and touch the asbestos lagging inside. I could see the white asbestos dust on my hands.
“I know I am lucky to still carry on with a full life at the age of 39, and manage the stomach pain and tiredness symptoms. But in a way it is frightening, as the longer I survive, the more difficult it is for me psychologically. My legal case was settled, which I was relieved about. But it is a paltry sum given that I will lose my life early.
“For everyone diagnosed with mesothelioma, the government will pay out a lump sum and the amount depends upon your age at the time of diagnosis.
“But the sting in the tail is that this lump sum payment is deducted from your final compensation payment and repaid to the government. Had I been allowed to keep my lump sum payment, this would have made a lot of difference to me and my family.
“I have a wife, Kathleen, and two children, George and Madison. I work part-time and I run the football youth team. Who knows what the future holds? It could be more chemotherapy or even surgery, but at the moment, as I am able to have a full life, this is the priority.”
Sue Stephens: The Teacher
Sue Stephens a former teacher, died at 68 in June 2016, as a result of illness caused by exposure to asbestos.
Her daughter, Lucie, writes: “Mum had an incredible way with children. Over 30 years in the classroom she taught hundreds of four- to six-year-olds. One of her pupils wrote to her before she died, saying ‘I still remember your kindness and warm smile on my first day at primary school.’
“She finally retired with Dad, whom she was married to for more than 45 years, and they decided to move to Devon. They were both beekeepers, keen gardeners and walkers.
“But in 2014, Mum was diagnosed with mesothelioma. We were all stunned. Mum had always been extremely fit through exercise classes and lots of walking. She was given 12 months to live – her diagnosis was too late for any surgery. She did bravely go on with chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but sadly neither treatment was very effective. She died last year. It’s devastating.
“A Freedom of Information request shows that asbestos was present in Mum’s classroom but she was never told about it. What tormented Mum
is that she could have protected her children; she had all the little ones in reception.
“We promised Mum we would try to do something to prevent more people suffering as she did. We have a petition to encourage the government to remove asbestos from schools, and we want all schools to produce an annual report for parents and teachers. The US already has this, and once the asbestos is gone, schools will become safer places for staff and children.”