Asbestos risk to children and staff in more than 5,000 English primary schools

Asbestos risk to children and staff in more than 5,000 English primary schools

Schools are failing to publicly report asbestos in their buildings putting thousands of children and staff at risk from asbestos related illnesses, reveals national law firm.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Stephensons Solicitors LLP to the 152 local education authorities in England has revealed 5,196 maintained primary schools are understood to have the potentially deadly material in its buildings.

Up to 69% of primary schools in the 101 local education authority areas who responded to the FOI request contain asbestos, according to the official figures.

However, the firm’s personal injury experts stress the real rate of asbestos in school buildings is likely to be much higher.

A further 3,791 schools could potentially contain asbestos after 51 local education authorities failed to respond to the FOI by Stephensons. While 13 admitted they do not hold a record of asbestos in individual school buildings they are responsible for, three responded but did not provide figures and one refused.

Academies and free schools are not included as they are no longer required to report to their local education authority on asbestos because they are outside of their control.

There are 11,217 local authority maintained primary schools in England. 

Although no figures are available on the number of children of who have died as a result of exposure to asbestos in the classroom, it remains a potential threat and has been found to be particularly harmful to children.

The lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma, a form of cancer associated with asbestos, is predicted to be about three and a half times greater for a child first exposed at age five compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about five times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.

“There are still a large number of local education authorities that have not tackled the issue of asbestos in their school buildings because they are still reporting high levels of the substance that can prove to be deadly,” said Kate Sweeney, a Partner in the Personal Injury team at Stephensons.

“Schools need to be doing more to provide information to parents and staff about the presence of asbestos in their primary school buildings. We are calling for all schools and local education authorities to publicly disclose if asbestos is on the premises and the measures being taken to manage it.”

According to the National Education Union at least 319 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980, and 205 of these deaths have occurred since 2001.

Stephensons’ investigation follows a call from the Department of Education last year for all schools to report how much asbestos is in their buildings.

After nearly a quarter (23%) of schools failed to respond by the February 2019 deadline the government’s Public Accounts Committee called for the department to “name and shame” those schools which failed to respond.

Asbestos was banned in 1999 but had been routinely used during construction in decades gone by. The material was commonly installed in school buildings during the 1940s-1970s and is now often in a deteriorating state.

Problem buildings with damaged roofs, rotten windows and broken ceiling tiles can result in asbestos fibres being released into the air. If inhaled, the fibres can cause a range of life-threatening illnesses including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Stephensons highlight that many local education authorities will claim although asbestos is identified in school buildings under their control it is maintained at safe levels and an asbestos management plan is in place.

Liz Darlison, Head of Services at Mesothelioma UK, the national charity for the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma, added: "Sadly, the UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in world which directly correlates to the amount of asbestos we imported. There is no safe level of exposure and sadly, we should be doing much more to protect people, particularly children. 

"The time from exposure, to developing the disease, can take several decades, which is why the level of concern about low level exposure is perhaps not fully appreciated. As a nation, we must take responsibility and rid our buildings of this cancer-causing substance, for the sake of our children, their children and every generation in the future.”

Kate added: “Many people still think that asbestos is a problem of the past and that asbestos-related illnesses only occur in trades people or people who have worked in the construction industry.

“This is simply not the case. The potentially deadly material has been used in all types of buildings and is still present in many primary schools due to aging school buildings. Parents and teachers have a right to know if asbestos is present and what measures are being taken to manage exposure.”

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is caused by airborne asbestos fibres being inhaled and getting into a person’s lungs. The fibres can lodge into the pleura (lining of the lungs) which causes inflammation and scarring. Over time, the damage affects the DNA of cells and can cause mesothelioma cancer. Often it is not diagnosed until many years later.

Warning signs of pleural mesothelioma:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tiredness (fatigue)
  • Sweating and high temperatures
  • A persistent cough
  • Losing weight when not dieting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A hoarse or husky voice
  • Changes in the shape of fingers and nails

When to see your doctor

You should see your doctor if you have the above symptoms. Particularly if you know you have been exposed to asbestos in the past.

Your symptoms are unlikely to be cancer but it's important to get them checked by a doctor. The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is to be successful.