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13 November 2014
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School buildings

What risk does asbestos in schools pose?

Asbestos – the tip of the iceberg

Inside Out South East has discovered that more than 90% of schools in the region still contain asbestos. The programme used the Freedom of Information Act to conduct the first survey of asbestos in South East schools.

Video - Asbestos in schools
Film maker:BBC Inside Out South East
Subject:Inside Out investigates how many schools in the South East still contain asbestos.

Asbestos in our schools

185 out of 195 schools in East Sussex contain asbestos.

554 out of 599 schools in Kent contain asbestos.

89 of the 116 schools in Medway contain asbestos... A type of asbestos called amosite, which is particularly dangerous to health.

Source: Freedom of Information searches submitted by Inside out to Kent County Council, East Sussex Council and Medway Council.

The dangers

In post war Britain the majority of state schools were built using asbestos, which only poses a threat to health once it’s exposed and starts to crumble.

Asbestos fibres under the microscope

The danger is from crumbling asbestos.

The vast majority of these 'system built schools' still exist today.

Every school should have its own asbestos management plan including a book showing where the asbestos is.

Anyone who visits the school to do work must read the book and sign it.

That way, in theory, no tradesman or woman will cut into or disturb the asbestos.

Also, under current guidelines, areas where asbestos is exposed should be securely sealed.

More permanent solutions

The National Union of Teachers believes that all asbestos should be removed from schools, as is being done in the US and Ireland.

But, in England, Scotland and Wales, instead of stripping out asbestos, the Government intends to slowly replace or refit old schools.

Dr Robin Howie

Robin Howie: the tip of the iceberg

However, asbestos expert Robin Howie says this won’t guarantee the removal of all asbestos:

"We are going to build new schools, wonderful, but the old schools, which are frankly being tarted up and that means the asbestos is hidden, and once its hidden no-one will disturb tarted up schools.

"That asbestos is still going to be there."


Approximately 2000 people a year are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the UK.

Around 90% of mesothelioma cases... are attributed to exposure to asbestos.

It usually takes between 15 and 45 years after being exposed to asbestos for mesothelioma to develop.

In the early stages is unlikely to cause any symptoms but as it progresses, mesothelioma can cause symptoms such as tiredness, loss of appetite and weight loss.

In the later stages, mesothelioma can cause breathlessness and severe chest pain.

Studies show that people live an average of seven to 11 months from diagnosis and rarely longer than three years.


Exposure to asbestos fibres can cause a cancer called mesothelioma.

Gina Lees was a primary school teacher for 30 years. She died from mesothelioma, aged just 51.

Gina Lees

Gina Lees died aged just 51

Her husband, Michael, was the person to tell two of her former head teachers that their school contained asbestos:

"They didn’t know their school contained asbestos, and yet all the ceiling tiles in the school were asbestos and they’d been damaged on a daily basis

"And hence the fact that Gina been exposed and died of asbestos exposure.

"I phoned the HSE and I fully expected them to say, 'Good lord a school teacher has died from asbestos exposure - that is a great concern we must look into it.' And nothing happened."

No one knows exactly how many teachers have died of mesothilioma but statistics suggest the figures are rising.

And asbestos in schools today is decaying with age, but we won’t necessarily see the effects of that for 20 or 30 years.


Asbestos was used extensively as a building material from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. It was used for a variety of purposes including fireproofing and insulation.

Buildings built before 2000 (houses, factories, offices, hospitals) may contain asbestos.

Asbestos materials in good condition are safe unless fibres become airborne - this takes place when materials are damaged.

A major risk factor in developing an asbestos-related disease is the total number of fibres breathed in. Working on or near damaged asbestos-containing materials or breathing in high levels of  fibres can increase the chances of getting an asbestos-related disease.

There are around 4,000 deaths per annum related to asbestos. Related diseases include mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Source: HSE

Tip of the iceberg

Robin Howie says, "What it means is that teacher mesotheliomas are important because they are the tip of the iceberg.

"And that iceberg are the mesotheliomas in children."

The Health and Safety Executive believes that asbestos is best left where it is.

Rosalind Roberts from the HSE

Rosalind Roberts: it's a health risk being managed

Rosalind Roberts, from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), says it would be a bigger danger to remove it:

"If it is there and it is sealed in place then it represents no health risk to those using the building.

"It only represents a health risk if somebody comes along and drills into it and makes the fibres airborne and people breathe them in.

"So the duty-holder (the school or local authority, depending on the type of school it is) has to have a register to check where it is, what condition it’s in and make sure it’s sealed in place.

"I didn’t say asbestos was safe... I think it is a health risk that is being managed."

Video Extra - HSE
Film maker:BBC Inside Out South East
Subject:Rosalind Roberts explains why the HSE hasn't done a national audit of asbestos in schools.

So, it sounds as though, for the moment at least, the asbestos in our schools will remain where it is.

last updated: 06/04/2009 at 12:06
created: 27/01/2009

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