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Asbestos: A hidden killer T

Eleven years ago, Michael Lees lost his wife, a teacher, to the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma. He is fighting for special guidance and regulations to govern asbestos management in schools and for a policy of openness so that teachers and parents are not kept in the dark. Here he presents his case

he Department for Education (DfE) estimate that more than 75 per cent of schools contain asbestos. The number is likely to be higher as, for example, about 90 per cent of schools in

Wales, Greater Manchester, Kent and the North East contain asbestos. All contain chrysotile (white asbestos) and amosite (brown) was used extensively. Some schools contain crocidolite (blue). Mesothelioma is a cancer that is almost always caused by exposure

to asbestos and is always fatal. Chrysotile can cause mesothelioma but amosite is up to 100 times, and crocidolite up to 500 times, more likely to do so. There is no known threshold exposure to asbestos below which there is no risk and all exposures are cumulative and increase the likelihood of a tumour developing. Children are more vulnerable to the dangers of asbestos than adults. Because there is a long latency they will live longer for any disease to develop and it is also thought that they could be more at risk because of their physical immaturity. It is estimated that a five-year-old child is about five times more at risk of developing mesothelioma by the age of 80 than their teacher of 30. A report commissioned by the Medical Research Council (MRC) examined the extent, type and location of asbestos in schools and concluded: “It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings.” The MRC report assessed

Campaigner: Michael Lees 14

lifetime asbestos exposures and estimated the numbers of asbestos fibres inhaled by a child during their time at school and concluded: “Children attending schools built prior to 1975 are likely to inhale around 3 million respirable asbestos fibres...Exposure to

asbestos in school may therefore constitute a significant part of total exposure.” The report was based on asbestos being in good condition, but the

school stock has not been well maintained so asbestos in many schools is not in good condition. The result is that significant levels of asbestos fibres have been released at levels far greater than estimated in the MRC report.

Early exposure More people die from mesothelioma each year in Britain than are killed on the roads, and we have the highest mesothelioma incidence in the world. It is more than twice that of France, Germany or the USA. It is not unreasonable to assume that asbestos exposure in schools has contributed to this high incidence, as a significant proportion of the population have been exposed from a very young age.

“More people die from mesothelioma each year in Britain than are killed on the roads, and we have the highest mesothelioma incidence in the world.”

In 1965 the Factory Inspectorate report concluded that mesothelioma

could be caused by exposure at an “astonishingly slight degree”. At the same time the government were warned about the particular vulnerability of children. However the warnings were not heeded and, under pressure from the asbestos industry, schools continued to be built using large amounts of asbestos. Between 1945 and 1975, when the use of asbestos was at its height, more than 14,000 schools were built and many others were refurbished.

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