Asbestos In Schools
My name is Liz Makin and I am a senior solicitor working for Wolferstans solicitors specialising in asbestos related claims. Not only have I succeeded in winning compensation for many hundreds of asbestos disease sufferers throughout my career, but I have also come across cases involving friends and family.
Around 10 years ago, a friend described to me the symptoms from which her father, Barry, was suffering. Breathlessness; chest pain; an inability to walk up hill; fluid retention – it all sounded chillingly familiar. The symptoms were just like those of my clients suffering from mesothelioma: a cancer which is almost invariably caused by exposure to asbestos dust. The doctors had not yet diagnosed Barry’s illness and, bearing in mind his work history, I dismissed from my mind any thoughts of an asbestos related disease. Barry wasn’t one of the tradesmen typically at risk. He had never been a dockyard worker, an electrician, a plumber, a ship builder or a carpenter. He was retired at this point but had spent his whole life teaching, firstly as a classroom teacher and later progressing to become head of a large comprehensive school.
My friend called me a few weeks later. It turned out that Barry had developed terminal mesothelioma.
Incidents of mesothelioma increase year on year in Britain and is now up to 36.5 people per million: the worst in the world. Usually, there is a significant period of time between exposure to asbestos and the development of the disease. On average, it takes between 30 – 40 years from exposure to asbestos to the first onset of symptoms.
More than 75% of British schools contain asbestos. Approximately 13,000 of the UK’s 23,800 schools were built between 1945 and 1974; when the use of asbestos in construction was at its peak. Factories inspectorate reports in the mid – late 1960s warned of the dangers of inhaling even a small quantity of asbestos dust. Despite this, schools continued to be built using large amounts of asbestos materials. Ceilings, walls and floor tiles were often constructed using asbestos. In addition, it was found in Bunsen burner mats, oven mitts used for domestic science, fire blankets and even in the manufacture of blackboards.
School boiler houses can often be rife with asbestos. There was a case of a primary teacher who died of mesothelioma and the post mortem found industrial levels of asbestos fibre in her lung. She had regularly hung children’s coats in the boiler house at her school.
Now, many British schools are in a poor condition because they are beyond their design life. A scheme intended to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in Britain was terminated in 2010.
Current government policy is to leave asbestos in schools undisturbed. It is the inhalation of asbestos dust which causes illness and it is thought safer to leave it undisturbed than to remove it. Having said that, school buildings suffer more than other buildings might quite simply because they are full of children: jostling in corridors, kicking footballs and creating holes in walls.
Teaching unions are worried. Sarah Lyons (Health and Safety Officer for the National Union of Teachers) has called for a strategic plan for the removal of all asbestos in schools, starting with those in the worse condition.
Those who work in schools are risk. For decades, teachers have displayed children’s work by pinning or stapling pictures of pieces of writing to walls. If the walls contain asbestos, which they often do, dust can be created even as a result of this seemingly innocent activity.
Records charting deaths from mesothelioma within different occupations started in 1980. Then, on average, three teachers a year died from mesothelioma. Numbers have increased year on year. By 2006 – 8, an average of 16 teachers were dying of mesothelioma every year. Nursery nurses, lunchtime assistants, secretaries, cleaners and caretakers have also been victims. The health and safety executives have identified school caretakers as being at particular risk due to the nature of their duties drilling and fixing and potentially therefore disturbing asbestos dust.
Death rates amongst teachers are significantly higher than occupations such as farming or forestry where there has genuinely been little or no exposure to asbestos. When compared with other “white collar” professions such as doctors, solicitors, government administrators or police officers, deaths from mesothelioma amongst teachers are proportionately higher than all of them.
There are now strict regulations as to how to deal with asbestos in schools. Schools need an asbestos register and to inform and train staff dealing with it.
As for my friend’s father, Barry, sadly he passed away in his mid 60s. Fortunately, he managed to see his new born granddaughter, but nevertheless died tragically young.
If you have been exposed to asbestos at any point in your life and have been diagnosed with an asbestos related condition such as mesothelioma, pleural thickening, asbestosis or lung cancer then it is essential to contact experienced specialist solicitors who can help you obtain the compensation and care that is required.
Wolferstans Solicitors Specialist Asbestos Department – 01752 292362