Asbestos Scandal in UK Schools Blamed on Government

Student with a bag showing UK Union Jack

Sarah Jane Bowman lives with a death sentence.

At age 40, the U.K. native received tragic news that she had the deadly cancer mesothelioma.

“To be told that I had a terminal illness and had less than a year to live was simply too much to comprehend,” Bowman said in a report issued by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC). “My family and I have struggled to overcome this.”

Mesothelioma is a rare disease with a long latency period that affects mostly tradesman, such as pipefitters and contractors, in the latter years of their lives. For them, exposure to toxic asbestos is an occupational hazard.

Bowman didn’t fit into that category. Instead, she was sentenced to death for the crime of being a schoolgirl.

New Report Announces Startling Statistic

Last month, JUAC issued a startling report claiming 86 percent of U.K. schools contain the carcinogenic substance asbestos. Since 1980, more than 400 British educators died from asbestos-related diseases.

In the meantime, tens of thousands of schoolchildren like Bowman sat at desks and walked the halls of these same buildings.

The report cites a leading cancer epidemiologist, Julian Peto, who predicts up to 300 new mesothelioma cases each year in staff and former students from the 1960s and ’70s as a result of contamination in U.K. school buildings.

Used heavily in building materials prior to 1980, asbestos deteriorates over time and releases toxic fibers into the air. It’s most often found in floor and ceiling tiles, as well as pipe insulation.

Maintenance work and other activities that disturb asbestos also can create exposure hazards.

Asbestos Campaigners Reproach Government

JUAC calls the asbestos situation in U.K. schools a national “scandal” resulting from years of “systematic failings” by leaders and lawmakers.

The report focuses primarily on two specific schools that represent the problem at large. It claims failure in numerous ways:

  • Surveys and risk assessments did not identify all the asbestos that could be disturbed by normal school activities and building deterioration.
  • Risk assessments were designed for adults, not for children who are more vulnerable to asbestos.
  • Contractors working with asbestos were managed ineffectively.
  • The government waived more stringent survey requirements based on cost (as suggested in Freedom of Information documents acquired by investigators).
  • Considerable deterioration in school buildings put students at risk.
  • There is no requirement to inform parents of asbestos risks in their child’s school
  • Schools do not retain asbestos records and exposure registers of pupils and school staff.

Unless the government addresses these issues, there will be no accountability for asbestos health risks. “This has enabled the culprits to evade responsibility for asbestos exposure leading to mesothelioma, allowing them to escape with impunity,” the report states.

The U.K.’s incidence of mesothelioma currently rates the highest in the world with the numbers continuing to climb.

Vehement Response from Educators

JUAC presented the eye-opening report at a National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference in March.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), called the report shocking and outrageous.

“ATL has been campaigning about this for years. Action must be taken by the government now,” she said.

Government Responds

A Department of Education spokesman responded to the accusations stating, “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of children and staff in our schools.”

The spokesman added that in the past six years, billions have been spent to improve schools, with additional monies expected this year.

“This will help ensure asbestos is managed safely and that the amount in school buildings continues to reduce over time,” the spokesman said.

Hank Roberts, one of the investigators who presented the report at the NUT conference, saw it another way. “It’s disgraceful,” he said. “This document shows absolutely everything you can think of has been going wrong — negligence, deceit, lying. Saying it’s safe is an absolute lie.”

While some U.K. schools have asbestos management practices in place, many do not. The law states asbestos can be left alone as long as it’s undisturbed, according to a report from The Independent.

JUAC accused the government’s weak and ineffective policy as a “scandalous disregard for human life.”

Similar Problem Overseas

While the U.K. leads the world in mesothelioma incidence — with rates twice that of France, Germany and the United States — the U.S. also faces an asbestos crisis.

As public buildings erected before 1980 deteriorate from coast to coast, U.S. schools battle the same issues as the U.K.

A recent report published by the EWG Action Fund announced more than 1,000 Chicago schools endanger students daily through asbestos contamination.

In California, the Los Angeles suburb of Huntington Beach continues a nightmare of school closings, bussing students out of district and skyrocketing costs to abate asbestos in three schools over the past two years.

Bowman Fighting for Life

For now, Bowman serves as the poster child for the tragic fate that may befall many former U.K. students and staff in the future.

Doctors have described her condition as “guarded” since they removed a cancerous tumor on her abdominal wall.

The JUAC report concludes with a dire warning: “[T]he situation in Brent is being replicated across the country and giving our children premature death sentences.”

  1. Press Association. (2016, March 16). Schools asbestos ‘scandal’ still threatening lives - report. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/pa/article-3510997/Schools-asbestos-scandal-threatening-lives--report.html
  2. Vulliamy, E. (2016, March 27). Asbestos in schools ‘scandal’ is putting pupils and teachers in danger of fatal disease. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asbestos-in-schools-scandal-is-putting-pupils-and-teachers-in-danger-of-fatal-disease-a6955311.html
  3. Roberts, H. et al. (2016, March). Asbestos Management in Brent Schools: Local and National Implications. Retrieved from https://www.teachers.org.uk/sites/default/files2014/Asbestos%20management%20in%20Brent%20Schools%20The%20full%20report%20-%20FINAL.pdf

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