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The dangers of a career in teaching: asbestos in schools

Updated on November 21, 2012

Asbestos in schools: the hidden killer

Asbestos is never going to be the most pleasant of subjects to talk about. But a few days ago, as I was slowly waking up one morning (and drinking copious amounts of tea), I heard a story on the local radio. It was talking about teachers, and how it is the profession that is most at risk from contracting an asbestos related disease. My ears pricked up. I had always thought industrial workers were the most at risk - it had never even crossed my mind about teachers and schools. So I decided to do some research... and found that the dangers of asbestos are much greater than I'd previously thought.

Now, I'm not trying to scaremonger here, but I do think it's really important that people know more about asbestos. In the UK, it's even more vital: Britain has the highest rate of mesothelioma (asbestos lung cancer), in the world, twice the rate of France, Germany and the USA. (Don't know what mesothelioma is? Have a look at the short documentary video below). It's not only teachers, but children in schools, who are at risk of developing the disease later in life.

With so many at risk, and with so many teachers being diagnosed with asbestos related diseases, I decided to create this lens to raise awareness about the dangers of asbestos in schools and to open up discussions on what should be done to deal with this problem.

Teachers are at the most risk of being exposed to asbestos

When we hear about asbestos, most people's automatic reaction is to connect asbestos with traditional 'heavy' industries. Mining, shipbuilding, factories, dockyards, ironworks... for many years people who worked in these industries were indeed the most at risk from contracting a disease due to exposure to asbestos. The problem, however, is actually a lot more widespread. A recent report in Britain found that teachers, not miners, are the most likely working group to suffer from an asbestos related disease. Asbestos is a feature in over 75% of British schools, putting teachers, staff and pupils at risk.

This is extremely worrying for anyone working in a school environment. The UK Medical Research Council experimented with the levels of asbestos fibres in the air in schools, to see how much it was actually affecting the school environment. The results were shocking:

Tests showed that, in general, background asbestos fibre levels were anything from 5-500 times greater in schools than they are in other environments. They also tested more specific situations. An action as simple as removing some books from a stationary cupboard that had an asbestos back released asbestos fibres 100 times greater than background levels. Pinning children's work to a wall that contains asbestos had similar results.

Exposure to asbestos can cause a serious form of lung disease: mesothelioma. Between 2002 and 2012, 140 teachers have died from mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos in schools. An unknown number of cleaners, caretakers and school staff have also died due to this exposure.

There are several reasons why asbestos is, unfortunately, such a common feature in schools. With the end of the Second World War in 1945, the UK government embarked upon an extensive building programme to restore life to communities that had been torn apart during the war. New houses, hospitals and schools were built. Asbestos was a key building material at the time, as it was extremely versatile and very cheap to import. Between 1945 and 1975, almost every new school built contained asbestos in one form or another. Additionally, many older school buildings were refurbished or had extensions built during this period, again using asbestos as a principal building material.

Although the dangers of asbestos were to some extent known, (the first recorded death due to asbestos exposure was in 1924), for some reason, cautions about the dangers of this material went unheeded. Perhaps it was too good value to stop using, perhaps asbestos companies did not want their businesses to collapse and so hushed up the dangers of asbestos. In the UK it took many years for asbestos to be completely banned - a complete ban on all forms of asbestos, as a building material or for imports and exports, was not implemented until 1999. Even now, asbestos is having an adverse effect on our environment and is posing a serious health risk to teachers.

Children are just as much at risk as teachers
Children are just as much at risk as teachers

The knock-on effect on school children

The fact that teachers are being exposed to such a dangerous substance on a daily basis is scary enough.... but asbestos could also be affecting school children.

In the US, similar research about asbestos in schools found that, for every teacher who dies from an asbestos-related disease, 9 children will also contract the disease. A frightening thought. Applied to the British population, this would mean that over 100 people every year die due to asbestos exposure when they were at school.

When asbestos has been proved as being such a harmful substance, and when statistics like this stare us in the face, it begs the question, is there anything being done to solve the problem and get rid of asbestos?

What is asbestos?

What exactly is asbestos? In its most basic form, asbestos is a mineral substance. It comes in six different varieties, but all types of asbestos have one thing in common: its crystals are very thin and fibrous. From a builder's perspective, this makes asbestos very useful as it can be manipulated into many different forms and substances. Asbestos became extremely popular in the 19th century because of this, in addition to the fact that it is generally fire, heat and chemical resistant.

Asbestos is also, however, highly toxic. If asbestos fibres are inhaled, they can cause serious damage to the lungs, often resulting in lung disease and lung cancer. This is the problem that many schools in Britain are facing today.

Asbestos is often found hidden in classrooms
Asbestos is often found hidden in classrooms

Where can asbestos be found?

It's not just a risk for miners and industrial workers

The use of asbestos was widespread throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and although the use of asbestos was banned in 1999, many buildings and items still contain asbestos.

One of the most common uses of asbestos was to create asbestos insulation boards, or AIB. These would be used in walls and ceilings, and are often found in schools, hospitals and other public buildings. It can even be found in private homes - during the 1950s and 1960s, when many new housing estates were built, asbestos was used as it was so cheap and versatile.

Asbestos can be found in pipe lagging, in textured paint substances such as Artex, as insulation or in toilet cisterns. It was even common for asbestos to be used in brake pads on cars. This is a problem that has persisted even today - a recent discovery of asbestos car parts in Chinese vehicles prompted a widespread recall across Australia, where the vehicles had been exported to.

Because it is the inhalation of asbestos fibres that is dangerous, the condition of a building will generally determine how dangerous the asbestos is. If a building has not been maintained for years then, chances are, the asbestos will have started to disintegrate, releasing the toxic fibres into the air.

What is frightening is that today, surprisingly few people are aware that asbestos is still present in many public buildings. Dame Helen Shorelton, the CEO of the British Lung Foundation, has warned that unless there is more awareness about asbestos, it will pose further risks to people in the future.

Resources about asbestos

For more information about asbestos, its causes and sources of support for those people struggling with an asbestos-related disease, take a look at these links below. There are numerous asbestos charities around the world, but I've just focused on the UK ones for now.

Asbestos primarily affects the lungs
Asbestos primarily affects the lungs

How can asbestos affect us?

Asbestos related diseases

Inhalation of asbestos fibres can be extremely harmful to our health. Exposure to asbestos can cause serious lung problems, including lung cancer. Unfortunately, exposure to asbestos only needs to happen once for the fibres to become trapped in the lungs. There are countless stories in the news about people who only worked with asbestos for a few weeks, or were unaware that they were in contact with the material, who were then diagnosed with an asbestos related disease. Teachers have often found this - asbestos lurks in many school walls, so when teachers have pinned work up on display, asbestos fibres can be released and inhaled.

Part of the problem with asbestos is that it can take years, even decades, to surface as a disease. People who were exposed to asbestos aged 16 can be absolutely fine, and then be diagnosed with an asbestos disease aged 50. The long time it takes for asbestos to surface is why it is so difficult to detect. By the time it does start to cause health problems, it is often too late to do anything substantial about it.

There are four main kinds of asbestos related disease:

Asbestosis : Asbestosis is usually the first condition people contract after exposure to asbestos. The asbestos fibres become lodged in the lungs, which can cause severe shortness of breath. If left undetected, the fibres can become malignant and develop into lung cancer.

Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a form of lung cancer directly related to asbestos exposure. It causes more deaths in the UK than road traffic accidents. Although industrial workers are likely to develop mesothelioma, anyone who works in a building that contains asbestos is technically at risk.

Asbestos related pleural plaques : pleural plaques are deposits of asbestos fibres in the lining of the lungs. It is not in itself cancerous, and generally benign, however if diagnosed it should be carefully monitored, as it could develop into pleural thickening, or even turn cancerous.

Diffuse pleural thickening : This is a non-cancerous condition that affects the lining of the lungs. Again, it is caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres. It is often a progression of pleural plaques.

More on mesothelioma - A short documentary video

I came across this video a few months ago when I was doing some research into mesothelioma and its causes. This very useful video hears from victims of the disease and their families, in addition to providing explanations about how mesothelioma is contracted in the first place. It points out that exposure to asbestos doesn't have to be substantial for someone to succumb to this dreadful disease.

Looking for more information on asbestos diseases?

For more information about asbestos related diseases, their symptoms, causes and treatments, have a look at the UK Health and Safety Executive website. Also have a look at these useful websites with more information on asbestos.

Asbestos removal is costly and time consuming
Asbestos removal is costly and time consuming

So, what is being done about asbestos in schools?

Here's a hint: very little

If asbestos is such a problem, and given that its health risks are so well known, you would think that there was a lot being done to prevent asbestos from causing any more danger. Alas, this does not seem to be the case in the UK.

Our current government policy is that it is better to leave asbestos alone, as long as it is in a good condition. To some extent this does make sense, as the less contact people have with asbestos the better. But it doesn't get around the fact that, in too many schools, asbestos is NOT in a good condition. The fibres are everywhere, as the MRC tests showed. Moreover, "managing" asbestos is horrifically expensive to do, as asbestos will have to be managed long into the future. All the time, it continues to have a harmful effect on teachers and schoolchildren.

There is currently no training for teachers or other school staff on how to handle asbestos. In theory, each school should have a register of all known asbestos locations in the building, in addition to assessing its condition. Investigations showed, however, that 67% of teachers didn't even know they were supposed to do this. The Department for Education is currently developing online training to increase asbestos awareness - but this will not be compulsory, and it isn't receiving the best funding at the minute, so it's uncertain how much of an effect this will actually have.

Local authorities, such as councils and governing bodies of schools, will have data about the extent of asbestos in schools in their area; however, this data has never been collected centrally. The government therefore has very little idea as to the extent of the problem. Without the full picture, there is very little hope that a decent, long-term strategy could be developed to help eradicate the problem of asbestos once and for all. The government needs central data to be able to make funding estimates for the UK, but at present, despite the enormous attention that asbestos in schools is receiving in the media, they seem to be doing little, if anything, about it.

Who should be responsible? - Central government, or local authorities?

Opinions vary as to whose responsibility it is to deal with the problem of asbestos. Some argue that a centralised government policy is needed in order to tackle the problem effectively. Others say that local councils and education authorities will have better ideas about what will work in the local area, so it should be their responsibility. I suppose it comes down to whether you are a localist or a centralist... but ultimately, what is the best way to deal with the problem?

Should the government put more resources into dealing with asbestos in schools?

Sources for this lens

The idea for this lens came about when, one morning over breakfast, I heard a short piece on the radio about teaching and asbestos. I then did a little research, digging around on various news websites. Not all newspapers had reported it, but the BBC had some excellent coverage. I've also included a link to the asbestos in schools report, which came out in February 2012.

Did you know about the extent of asbestos in schools? Have you been affected by an asbestos related disease? Share your stories and comments here.

Comments and thoughts

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    • melissiaoliver profile image

      melissiaoliver 5 years ago

      @LaraineRoses: I'm very sorry to hear that - it's an awful disease.

    • LaraineRoses profile image

      Laraine Sims 5 years ago from Lake Country, B.C.

      A very serious problem. My husband has to have a yearly examination. Somewhere in his lifetime he was exposed to asbestos.

    • profile image

      mbmohamedbadr 5 years ago

      There are many asbestosis symptoms, some of the symptoms appear at an early stage and others take a long time in order to appear

    • profile image

      pawpaw911 5 years ago

      Important subject.

    • melissiaoliver profile image

      melissiaoliver 5 years ago

      @TreasuresBrenda: I hadn't thought about it either, but I suppose if it was so cheap to import and build with then asbestos would make its way into public buildings. I'm definitely more aware of this when I go into schools and hospitals now!

    • TreasuresBrenda profile image

      Treasures By Brenda 5 years ago from Canada

      Yikes. I hadn't thought about this but it makes sense.