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Decorating for Christmas Could Bring Asbestos Exposure in UK

Christmas tree in classroom

The organization representing education worker unions in the United Kingdom has cautioned its members to avoid disturbing asbestos and endangering children when displaying Christmas decorations in school classrooms.

The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) — through the Department of Education — issued a directive to staffs throughout the U.K., reminding them nearly 90 percent of schools still contain some toxic asbestos products.

JUAC said putting staples and pins into walls or ceilings to help display holiday decorations often releases microscopic asbestos fibers that can cause serious health issues for those nearby.

“This activity should not be taking place in schools where asbestos is known to be present,” the Department of Education insisted.

JUAC advised school staffs to:

  • Determine whether your building contains asbestos and exactly where it is located.
  • Not pierce the walls and ceilings of classrooms, corridors or halls with staples or pins to hang Christmas decorations if asbestos is suspected.
  • Find alternative ways to display holiday decorations and other artwork.

“Any school built before 2000 is likely to contain asbestos,” the JUAC directive said. “Nearly 90 percent of schools still contain asbestos and children are known to be most vulnerable because of the long latency of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma.”

Even with Asbestos Ban, the Problem Remains

The U.K. is among 61 countries that have banned the toxic mineral, but still has one of the world’s highest incidence rates of asbestos-related disease, stemming from ubiquitous use for decades that remains a threat today.

Asbestos was used in U.K. school construction in various forms until 1999, when the full ban took effect. It was utilized to better fireproof the construction, primarily in ceiling and floor tiles, along with certain drywall products.

The Health and Safety Executive, the U.K.’s governmental agency that oversees school remodeling projects that may include asbestos, said “as long as asbestos is in good condition, well-managed and unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, it is not a significant risk to the health of teachers and pupils.”

Asbestos becomes dangerous when it ages or is disturbed, sending microscopic fibers into the air. When they are inhaled or ingested, the fibers eventually could lead to serious problems such as asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma.

Teachers and Students Getting Exposed

More than 250 former staff and students in the U.K. the past six years have filed claims with the Department of Education, citing asbestos-related diseases traced to various schools.

Asbestos also has been a problem in older schools throughout the United States.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates asbestos-containing materials are in many of the approximately 132,000 secondary and primary schools across the country.

The EPA also insists those materials pose very little risk if they remain in good condition and undisturbed. Problems have arisen, though, when an improper abatement is attempted or maintenance work is done without the necessary precautions.

Too often, untrained and unlicensed workers are performing older-school maintenance.

Although asbestos is difficult to identify in products, some places it is commonly found include:

  • Chipped paint
  • Damaged drywall, plaster or wallboard
  • Aging floor tiles and ceiling panels
  • Older air-conditioning and heating equipment

EPA regulations require schools to develop and regularly update a plan describing the type and location of any asbestos materials. It also requires regular asbestos inspections.

The EPA estimates almost half of all schools today were built between 1950 and 1969, a time when asbestos use was at its peak.

It is especially prevalent in schools throughout New England.

The EPA recently awarded $631,000 in grants to five New England states to help manage their asbestos-in-schools problem.


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His specialty is interviewing top mesothelioma specialists and researchers, reporting the latest news at mesothelioma cancer centers and talking with survivors and caregivers.

Last Modified December 18, 2017
Sources
  1. Whittaker, F. (2017, December 3). Schools told not to pin up Christmas decorations in union asbestos guidance. Retrieved from https://schoolsweek.co.uk/schools-told-not-to-pin-up-christmas-decorations-in-union-asbestos-guidance/
  2. Staufenberg, J. (2017, March 11). Staff and Pupils exposed to asbestos on more than 90 occasions. Retrieved from https://schoolsweek.co.uk/staff-and-pupils-exposed-to-asbestos-on-more-than-90-occasions/

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