Twenty years since asbestos was banned in construction, the Department for Education estimates that the cancer-causing substance is still present in more than 83% of schools in England.
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) estimates there are hundreds of tonnes of asbestos contained in schools and other public buildings. It is focusing on education settings as it is recognized that children are more vulnerable to the harmful effects.
Today JUAC is renewing its campaign – on Clean Air Day – for the phased removal of asbestos from schools, starting with the most dangerous first, with completion of removal no later than 2028.
The campaign also wants to see asbestos included in wider campaigning work around air pollution and is planning a conference next year on a range of issues impacting on air quality.
General secretary of school leaders' union NAHT Paul Whiteman said: "The impact of the pandemic on children has been huge; we need to do everything we can to make sure we safeguard their futures.
“One vital way of doing that is to ensure they return to a safe, clean and healthy school environment where they can learn, play and thrive. With asbestos in the majority of schools that isn't guaranteed. We'd urge the government to invest in safe school buildings just as they invest in recovery."
Joint general secretary of the National Education Union Dr Mary Bousted said: "On Clean Air Day we remember the right of every human to breathe clean air, free of contaminants such as asbestos particles, in our schools and colleges.
“It is disgraceful that school staff and former pupils continue to die because they were exposed to asbestos in our educational establishments. The government's policy of leaving asbestos in situ is clearly not working.”
JUAC also wants an independent review into central government’s policy of managing asbestos where it is, instead of phased removal.
There are some figures available from the Department for Education on how many schools still have asbestos, in some form or other, on their grounds but it is patchy and incomplete. The JUAC is calling for an audit to collect and share data on the extent, type and condition of asbestos across educational facilities.
The JUAC is also calling for HSE to proactively inspect, to ensure schools and colleges are monitoring asbestos properly. It also wants to see mandatory training for duty holders, and proper support and funding for asbestos removal.
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teacher’s union NASUWT said it was a “continuing national scandal” that after 20 years there has been no concerted effort to remove asbestos from schools. He added: “Asbestos is lethal. The only safe asbestos is removed asbestos.”
General secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Geoff Barton said as long as asbestos is present in school buildings there is potential for it to be disturbed and damage the health of staff and pupils.