Sunday Times backs call to remove asbestos in schools

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The Sunday Times has launched a campaign urging the phased removal of asbestos in schools and hospitals, quoting one health and safety leader as calling the situation an ‘unfolding tragedy.’

The call, part of a five-point action plan, comes after the Work and Pensions Committee made the same recommendation, which was rejected by the government last year.

Asbestos is the UK’s biggest workplace killer, with more than 5,000 people a year dying from diseases caused by it, mostly mesothelioma. "This is not something we can ignore anymore," said Peter McGettrick, Chairman of British Safety Council, last year after the MPs report came out. “The Select Committee is right that we should remove asbestos from all our public and commercial buildings, and that a national register should be set up, as has been done in other European countries."

It is estimated there are at least 21,500 schools which still contain asbestos. Photograph: iStock

In figures quoted by the paper yesterday from the National Education Union, about 400 former teachers have died from the disease since 1980, 300 of them since 2001. However, two thirds of deaths from mesothelioma occur over 75 years, the age after which it is not necessary to state a person’s occupation on their death certificate. So, this figure is likely to be an underestimate.

Nobody knows how many children were exposed to asbestos, adds the report. With symptoms taking up to 40 years to develop, it can be hard to pinpoint the exposure.

However, Chris Willis was only in his early thirties when he died in 2022 due to exposure he believed happened while a pupil at Kenton School in Newcastle.

Chris pictured with his wife Evelyn. Chris was diagnosed with mesothelioma aged just 29. Photograph: Mesothelioma UK

In his story told before his death to the charity Mesothelioma UK, he spoke of his ordeal in seeking treatment, including six rounds of chemotherapy, and his shock at his diagnosis: “[My doctor] told me it was such a rare cancer caused by asbestos that she never would have expected it in someone as young and fit as myself. To be honest, I never even knew what asbestos really was or how I could have come into contact with it.”

Sir Stephen Timms, chairman of the Commons work and pensions committee, who led the inquiry into asbestos last year, told the Sunday Times: “When you mention asbestos to most people, they tend to think it was a problem of the past that’s been dealt with. When you tell them it’s still all around us, they’re surprised. When you tell them it’s the UK’s biggest work-related killer, they’re shocked. And when you tell them it’s in most of our schools, they tend to become worried.”

Also, speaking to the paper, Professor Kevin Bampton, chief executive of the British Occupational Hygiene Society, said: “A tragedy is unfolding as we watch. We are currently sowing the seeds of a spike in cancer that will hit us in 30 to 40 years if we don’t act now. There is a perception that asbestos is a thing of the past, but it isn’t.”

Sunday Times: The five-point plan

1 Draw up a national strategy for the planned removal of all asbestos over the next 40 years, including identifying properties most in need of urgent action and clear guidance on the safe disposal of asbestos.

2 Create a national register of properties which contain asbestos and where it can be found. Owners of all non-domestic properties should be forced to comply with the rules for registration.

3 Develop an app, or digital register, that can be accessed by anyone renovating a property for free to discover if there is asbestos.

4 Introduce regular reporting of air quality around buildings that contain asbestos to monitor fibres.

​5. Set minimum standards of training for appointed duty holders who are responsible for monitoring asbestos on properties.

The full report in the Sunday Times here




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