Personal Injury

How asbestos in schools can impact your child’s health

It is reported that around 80% of state school buildings in England could still contain asbestos. Here, we take a look at the risk this can pose to pupils, teachers and staff members if it is not handled correctly.

09 January 2024

The risks that asbestos poses have been widely commented upon in recent years, and it is now generally understood and accepted that exposure to even low levels of asbestos dust and fibre can present potentially lethal danger.

Yet, the exact degree of danger asbestos can present is often misunderstood, or entirely unknown, by those working within or attending schools where asbestos is present. What’s more, despite asbestos being heavily adopted in school buildings, the impact that asbestos has on children is not effectively tracked in the UK.

In 2011’s landmark ruling, the Supreme Court accepted that Dianne Willmore died as a result of mesothelioma as a direct result of her exposure to asbestos while she attended Bowring Comprehensive School in Liverpool in the 1970s. This case highlighted the reality that children exposed to asbestos in a school setting do go on to develop mesothelioma.

How was asbestos used in schools and what risk does it present?

From around the late 1800s, asbestos began to be used extensively in a number of diverse ways and in a variety of commercially produced goods and products. It wasn’t until the 1950s in the wake of the Second World War, however, that its use became extremely widespread.

Asbestos would remain a staple in the construction of buildings, including schools and other public buildings, until the 1990s. It was finally banned in 1999, as the government sought to recognise the danger the substance posed, despite it being known from the 1960s at the latest that exposure to even low levels of asbestos dust could cause the fatal cancer, mesothelioma.

There was however never any attempt to systematically remove asbestos from the buildings where it had been used before the ban in 1999, meaning that today, as many as 80% of state schools in England still have asbestos present in their estate, in a variety of products and often in unpredictable and accessible locations.

If left alone and undisturbed, asbestos is not thought to present any significant risk of harm. It is only when the fibres of the material become airborne and are then inhaled that it can cause damage. However, asbestos products degrade over time and fibres often become airborne, even in circumstances where there has been no intentional contact or disturbance, meaning all who access buildings where asbestos is present are at risk of inhaling this deadly dust.

Despite this very real and current danger, recent research carried out by Slater and Gordon has found that approximately a quarter of those who work in education have no understanding of what asbestos is, and 13% are unaware that exposure to asbestos can lead to health issues.

This presents a worrying issue. If those working in school buildings are unaware of the danger asbestos can pose, what chance do the children attending school in those same buildings have of understanding the risks posed by asbestos exposure?

Are children at risk of asbestos-related illnesses?

Children are unlikely to display any symptoms of asbestos-related illnesses, due to the long latency period conditions such as asbestosis and mesothelioma have. For instance, asbestosis typically presents at least 10 years after the initial exposure, though it is common for this to be even longer (between 30 and 40 years).

This means that while children can unknowingly be exposed to potentially lethal amounts of asbestos fibre, it can be impossible to know how much damage has been caused until symptoms materialise sometimes decades later.

Currently, data on the development of asbestos-related illnesses triggered during adolescents is not tracked by the Office for National Statistics. This makes it difficult to know just how many adults who have been diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses, such as asbestosis or mesothelioma, may have developed the illnesses as a consequence of asbestos exposure during their time at school.

This continues, despite a publication by the Department for Education stating ten years ago that “[exposure] of children to asbestos is likely to render them more vulnerable to developing mesothelioma than exposure of adults to the equivalent asbestos dose” – indicating an awareness that asbestos poses a higher risk of complications for children than it does for adults working in the same environment.

What’s more, in 2012, Professor Julian Peto, a leading expert in asbestos-related cancers in the UK, estimated to a parliamentary select committee that between 200 and 300 adults who attended school in the 1960s and 70s would die each year as a result of exposure to asbestos.

What does the RAAC scandal mean for asbestos in schools?

Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) was a lightweight alternative to standard concrete. It was cheaper, quicker to produce and easier to install, and was used in construction between the 1950s and 1990s.

As it is aerated, RAAC is a porous material, making it susceptible to structural failure when exposed to moisture. Due to its weaknesses compared to traditional concrete, it also has a much shorter lifespan – with the Health and Safety Executive recently stating that much of the RAAC used is now beyond its lifespan and liable to collapse with little or no warning.

As of 19 September 2023, the government claimed the estates of 174 schools and colleges had been found to have included RAAC, with some mitigation work to minimise risk already underway. While most schools are once again able to offer full time face-to-face learning, there are still a significant number who must offer hybrid or full remote arrangements to ensure learning can continue due to the RAAC danger of without-warning collapse.

While the issue of RAAC is concerning enough, it is important to understand what this could mean for school buildings that still contain asbestos. The risk of structural failure in RAAC can mean an increased risk of disturbing asbestos fibres, and any work that has to be done to remove or reinforce RAAC must also take into account the presence and potential for disturbance of any asbestos.

What should I do if I’m concerned about asbestos?

If you are concerned about asbestos that may be present in your child’s school, it can be a good idea to talk through your concerns with the school. While they don’t have a legal obligation to inform you of the presence of asbestos in their estate, they do have a strict legal duty to ensure the presence of asbestos is managed safely. For more information, you can visit the Health and Safety Executive’s website, or check out their Asbestos Management for Schools checklist here.

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness and you believe you may have been exposed to asbestos fibres during your time at school, there is help available. At Slater and Gordon, we work with numerous charities who work tirelessly to support those affected by asbestos-related illnesses, from asbestosis to mesothelioma. You can find out more about these charities, and how to get in touch with them, here.

Living with an asbestos-related condition can be challenging for you and your family, and it’s only right that you receive the level of support you need to be able to do so in as much comfort as possible. That is why our specialist asbestos claims team is on hand to help you gain the compensation you deserve.

With decades of experience helping people access the support they need, our legal experts are all well-versed in cases dealing with asbestos-related illnesses, and work tirelessly to aid those struggling. To learn more or to find out how we can help you, get in touch with the team online or call on 0330 041 5869.

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