1. ITV Report

Pressure on authorities to do more to remove asbestos from schools

Checking for asbestos requires highly skilled contractors Credit: ITV News Anglia

There's growing pressure on the Government and local authorities to do more to remove asbestos from schools.

It's thought asbestos is present in virtually all schools built between 1950 and 2000 - and according to the campaign group 'I Asbestos in Schools', 40,000 people have died as a result of exposure to it during almost seven decades.

Even low levels of exposure to asbestos fibres can cause both lung cancer, as well as cancer of the lining of the lung called mesothelioma.

It's a condition Sally Millsopp's mother died from in 2015. Jennifer Earnshaw had been a headteacher at two primary schools in Norfolk.

Sally Millstropp lost her mother to an asbestos related cancer Credit: ITV News Anglia

"They were having major renovation works going on at the school and so she had breathed in spores unknowingly and then years and years later she started having some symptoms, some breathing difficulties, coughing and then she got this terrible diagnosis."

– Sally Millstropp, lost her mother to mesothelioma
Jennifer Earnshaw (left) died from mesothelioma Credit: Sally Millstropp

The family won compensation. Sally would occasionally pop in to her mother's school, so could have been exposed to asbestos herself.

"It's a ticking time bomb." she added. "You don't realise you have these problems until years and years later and equally all the staff that worked within the school itself and the pupils. Who's to say whether other people will find in the future they have single issues going on?"

– Sally Millstropp
Asbestos roof Credit: Anonymous

According to figures from the Department of Education, thousands of schools across the country are failing to follow safety guidelines on asbestos.

A survey of more than 5,500 schools in 2016 found:

  • More than four out of every five had asbestos.
  • 19 % were not fully compliant with asbestos procedures
  • Of these, 114 were said to give "significant cause for concern".
If asbestos is sealed then it isn't a risk if not disturbed say experts. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The Health and Safety Executive's view is that if asbestos is in a good, sealed condition it isn't a risk if left undisturbed. But that's not good enough for teaching unions, with the joint union asbestos committee saying the Government should commit to removing all asbestos in schools by 2028.

"It only takes one fibre and that could be a death sentence." says Bob Groome from the National Education Union, who's trying to raise awareness of the potential dangers.

Bob Groome speaking to ITV News Anglia Credit: ITV News Anglia

"Every school must have an asbestos register and that should be kept in reception, and it should detail every incident of asbestos in the school and where it is, " he said. "We would encourage teachers, parents and grandparents to look at it, and contractors must sign that register before they come on site, so they know where asbestos is."

– Bob Groome, National Education Union

Phoebe Osborne's a Cambridge based lawyer with Ashtons Legal and chair of the Anglia Asbestos Disease Group, and is seeing an increasing amount of cases involving asbestos related disease.

She says there has to be greater transparency on how real the dangers arising from older school buildings should be.

"However pressing the potential hazard, national government effectively turns a blind eye to the very real danger of asbestos in old school buildings, since they have no money for the enormous programme of phased removal which is required. The same is true of county councils, who have responsibility for schools in each area. They have no money either. No head teacher wants to go public and admit that his or her school may not be safe, so we have a reluctant conspiracy of silence among those who are in a position to point out the dangers."

– Phoebe Osborne, Chair of the Anglia Asbestos Disease Group

The Department for Education has said nothing's more important than the health and safety of children and staff in schools.

"That’s why we are investing £23 billion in school buildings by 2021. This will help ensure asbestos is managed safely and that the amount in school buildings continues to reduce over time."

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