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Asbestos: The deadly material that lurks in 75% of Northern Ireland schools

By Adrian Rutherford

Thousands of pupils are returning for the new term this week in buildings which contain potentially deadly asbestos.

The dangerous fibres — which can cause serious illness, including lung cancer — are present in 75% of Northern Ireland’s schools’ estate.

The close on 900 schools affected include dozens of nurseries and primaries.

In some cases the buildings contain crocidolite, also known as blue asbestos, which is the most lethal type of the material.

The Department of Education said that, provided the fibres were properly managed and not damaged or disturbed, there was no “significant risk” to health.

However, a leading campaigner said it wasn’t possible to safely manage asbestos in a school environment.

Michael Lees, whose wife died from cancer after being exposed to asbestos in the school where she worked, said a policy of phased removal was in many cases the only viable long-term option.

A powerful group of MPs and peers has also branded the presence of asbestos in UK school buildings as “a national scandal”.

Earlier this year the group called on the Government to introduce a programme to clear the material from schools.

Asbestos was used extensively as a building material between the 1950s and mid-1980s but is now banned.

Yet it remains in many schools, hospitals, ships, offices and factories.

It becomes dangerous when disturbed and, if inhaled, its fibres can cause lung problems such as the fatal mesothelioma and debilitating asbestosis. Every year around 4,000 people die from mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer across the UK.

In June Bloomfield Collegiate in east Belfast was at the centre of a major health scare after damaged asbestos was found in some of its buildings.

Details of the extent of asbestos presence in schools are contained in papers released by the five education boards following a Freedom of Information request.

The documents reveal:

  • Asbestos is contained in 876 schools across Northern Ireland, including 61 nursery schools;
  • Some 84% of schools in the Northern Education and Library Board area contain asbestos — the highest percentage of all the boards;
  • Crocidolite, the most dangerous form of asbestos, is present in 21 schools, including 10 in the Southern board area.

The Government policy is to ‘manage’ rather than remove asbestos, provided it is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed.

However, teacher unions believe that the total removal of asbestos is the safest option.

Julie Winn, who chairs the Joint Union Asbestos Committee — the national union watchdog of asbestos in schools — said the current policy was not acceptable.

“The UK has more than 75% of schools which contain asbestos, which is potentially going to be disturbed by boisterous behaviour or accidents, and so we say that this is an unacceptable position,” she told the Belfast Telegraph. “We would like to see a commitment to a phased removal so that children in the future do not face the same risks as our pupils do now.”

In a statement to this newspaper, the Department of Education said asbestos which was not disturbed or damaged was not a significant risk to health as long as it was properly managed.

The department said that, in line with Government policy, it is better for it to be managed for the remaining life of the school rather than disturbed.

However, some of the asbestos in Northern Ireland schools dates back several decades, and Ms Winn said older buildings could exacerbate the risks.

“Asbestos is a very robust substance, which is why it was such a successful building product, and it is hard to damage,” she said.

“However, a lot of asbestos has been in schools from the 1940s onwards so even if the fibres themselves are robust the materials in which it was incorporated will have deteriorated over time.

“This could mean that the asbestos containing materials are more prone to crumble allowing deadly fibres to be released.”

Mr Lees, who founded the Asbestos In Schools campaign group after the death of his wife, warned of risks in the current policy.

“If they have not been well maintained then, as the buildings deteriorate, so does the asbestos,” he said.

Earlier this year an all-party group of MPs and peers called for a scheme to remove the material after estimates suggested it was present in over 75% of UK schools.

The Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health's chairman, Jim Sheridan, said the figures were “a national scandal”.

What is it? What are the dangers? ...key questions answered

Q What is asbestos and what is it used for?

A Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous substance which was used extensively as a building material throughout the UK between the 1950s and mid-1980s. Although the material is now banned because of the risks it poses to human health, it is estimated that at least 50% of all asbestos ever used in the construction of buildings is still present.

Q What are the different types of the material?

A There are three forms of asbestos — chrysotile (white asbestos), amosite (brown) and crocidolite (blue). Chrysolite was widely used and is the most common type of asbestos found in Northern Ireland schools. Crocidolite is the most lethal form and was banned in 1985. It is said to be 500 times more dangerous than chrysotile, and is still present in 21 local schools.

Q What are the health risks associated with it?

A Asbestos is a hidden killer that can cause serious diseases, including lung cancer. It is linked to mesothelioma, a cancer which affects the lining of the lungs and asbestosis, a serious scarring condition of the lungs. Children are considered to be more vulnerable because they have more years in which to develop diseases related to the material.

Q How does Northern Ireland compare to elsewhere?

A Around three quarters of schools here contain asbestos, which is broadly similar to the rest of the UK. Earlier this year the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health produced a report which warned asbestos was present in around 75% of UK state schools. The group branded the findings as ‘a national scandal’.

Q Has asbestos caused any problems at Northern | Ireland schools?

A Yes. In June an investigation was launched after damaged asbestos was found to be present in buildings belonging to Bloomfield Collegiate in east Belfast. The Public Health Agency has confirmed that work which was carried out in 2001 on cupboards in the school may have inadvertently exposed the asbestos.

Q What is the Department of Education’s view?

A The department said it takes asbestos and all other health and safety matters very seriously. It said asbestos that is in good condition is not a significant risk to health as long as it is properly managed. If the department is made aware of any asbestos problems deemed an unacceptable risk, work is carried out immediately to resolve the problem.

Q What are the Government and teaching unions’ | policies on asbestos?

A The Government said that provided asbestos is in good condition and is unlikely to be disturbed, it is better for it to be managed for the remaining life of the school rather than removed. All schools are required to hold an asbestos register and management plan. However, teaching unions believe the total removal of asbestos is the safest option.

Removal is only reliable option to ensure safety of the children

By Michael Lees

Government policy for schools is that so long as asbestos is in good condition and not disturbed it is safe to manage it.

Asbestos can be safely managed in a library, shop or an office but schools are none of those. They are full of lively, boisterous children. Office workers don’t run into walls or kick footballs into ceilings, but children do.

Government policy relies on asbestos in schools being in good condition, but many are beyond their design life. If they have not been well maintained then, as the buildings deteriorate, so does the asbestos.

In 1987 it was found that just slamming a door or kicking a wall in a school can release dangerous asbestos fibres into the rooms. Yet nothing was done until 2006.

The remedy for thousands of steel framed schools is not to remove the damaged asbestos but to seal it in place with bathroom sealant squirted along every crack and gap in the columns and walls.

Parents are then assured that their children’s school are managing their asbestos. It can, however, only be considered a temporary measure as children often peel off the sealant.

Surveys of schools in Wales and England found that half the staff had no asbestos awareness training and had no idea where the asbestos was in their school.

In March, Northern Ireland’s Education Minister John O’Dowd stated that “currently there are no plans to provide specific asbestos training to school staff”.

The government’s policy of asbestos management will only work in schools if it is properly resourced, the staff trained, the buildings well maintained and the pupils’ behaviour exemplary.

In addition the asbestos really has to be in good condition and can not be in a place where it stands any chance of being disturbed.

If that is not the case then a policy of phased removal is the only viable long-term option.

Michael Lees’ wife, a teacher, died of an asbestos-related cancer — mesothelioma. He now campaigns for better asbestos awareness of asbestos in schools

The extent of the problem and what the boards say

BELFAST EDUCATION AND LIBRARY BOARD

Schools in board area: 150

Schools with Asbestos: 104

Over 100 schools in the Belfast area contain asbestos, including 19 nurseries and 65 primaries.

Nearly all the schools contain chrysotile while 55 have amosite present, three of them nurseries.

One school, Donegall Road PS, has the potentially deadly crocidolite type. It also contains chrysolite and amosite.

A BELB spokesman said: “The Board’s environmental hazards unit has appropriate and robust management procedures in place as a result of its ongoing asbestos survey regime.

“The Board was recently audited by the Health and Safety Executive in relation to its asbestos management practices and is compliant with Control of Asbestos requirements.”

NORTH EASTERN EDUCATION AND LIBRARY BOARD

Schools in board area: 261

Schools with Asbestos: 219

Nearly 84% of schools in the Northern Education and Library Board contain asbestos — the highest percentage of all five boards.

The vast majority, 200, contain chrysotile while 140 have amosite.

Six schools — including four primaries — have crocidolite present. These are Harryville PS, Ballymena; Moyle PS, Larne; Whitehead PS, Carrickfergus; Anahorish PS, Toomebridge; Garvagh High School and Carrickfergus Grammar School.

A spokesperson said: “The Board are managing the asbestos containing material identified, including crocidolite, in all schools as required by the relevant legislation and approved code of practices. This is reflected within the Board’s asbestos management plan.

“An integral part of this process is to conduct a priority risk assessment. This process considers the material, occupancy and maintenance activities, the likelihood of disturbance and exposure potential.

“Resulting from this assessment the Board have conducted a programme of removal and management. All high risk areas where there has been evidence of such materials have been removed.

“The Board are confident that all remaining risks are being managed safely and in such a way as to not pose any concerns to parents, pupils or staff.”

SOUTH EASTERN EDUCATION AND LIBRARY BOARD

Schools in board area: 207

Schools with Asbestos: 157

Five schools in the South Eastern board area contain crocidolite. One of them, Ballykeigle primary in Comber, closed during the summer.

The other four are Gilnahirk PS, Belfast; St Mary’s PS, Saintfield; Down High School and Fort Hill Integrated College, Lisburn.

A spokesman for the Board said there was no concern about the presence of crocidolite.

“As like the other types of asbestos crocidolite is monitored on a regular basis and the relevant risk assessments are revisited and recalculated should material conditions change or uses of areas change,” he said.

“The Board’s current management systems and risk assessment processes, as set out by the Health and Safety Executive NI, indicate that neither crocidolite nor any of the other types of asbestos pose a risk to property users.”

He said the SEELB manage the presence of asbestos containing materials in line with the Control of Asbestos regulations.

SOUTHERN EDUCATION AND LIBRARY BOARD

Schools in board area: 307

Schools with Asbestos: 232

Nine schools in the Southern Education and Library Board area contain crocidolite — the highest of the five boards.

Seven of them are primary schools — Newmills PS; Ballylifford PS in Cookstown; St Michael’s PS, Clady; St Mary’s PS, Dunamore; St Brigid’s PS, Augher; St John’s PS, Kingsisland and St Joseph’s PS in Madden, Co Armagh.

Portadown College and Holy Trinity College in Cookstown also have traces of crocidolite.

All but eight of the 232 schools with asbestos contain chrysotile while 135 are known to contain amosite.

An SELB spokesperson said the Board operates under clear, strict and approved official guidelines which reflect best practice in the area, and undertakes whatever work is required regardless of resource constraints.

“Any asbestos still in existence in Board premises, including schools, has been risk assessed using stringent criteria and is carefully and systematically managed,” she said.

“It is well documented and its condition regularly reviewed under an asbestos management plan. The priority at all times is ensuring that any potential risk to human health is alleviated.”

WESTERN EDUCATION AND LIBRARY BOARD

Schools in board area: 246

Schools with Asbestos: 164

Around two-thirds of schools contain asbestos, but none have the crocidolite type considered the most dangerous.

All those with asbestos contain the chyrsotile form while 58 of them also have amosite present, including 44 nurseries and primaries.

A spokesperson said all schools were surveyed for the presence of asbestos during 2003/04.

“Following these surveys all asbestos material which was assessed as being high risk or potentially hazardous due to its location or condition was removed,” she added.

“Schools within the Board area still have residual asbestos materials contained within the buildings.

“Where asbestos remains in any school building, its condition is monitored and is removed where changes to its classification increases its potential risk to health. All remaining asbestos has been assessed as being low risk.

“Asbestos continues to be removed from schools where it is likely to be disturbed prior to planned maintenance or refurbishment.

“The Board works closely with HSE NI on all matters relating to the health and safety of asbestos in buildings.”

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