Are our children in danger? You might be surprised to learn that a silent killer, asbestos, is lurking in the very place we consider safe – our schools. While asbestos exposure is dangerous for everyone, a shocking reality is that children are at greater risk from exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos in UK Schools: A Threat Lurking in the Shadows
Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring fibres known for their durability and resistance to heat, electricity and corrosion. Historically, these properties made asbestos an attractive material for use in construction. However, when these fibres are released into the air and breathed in, they can lead to deadly diseases like mesothelioma, a form of cancer that can develop even from exposure to a small concentration of asbestos fibres.
It’s a shocking fact that more than 75% of schools in England have buildings containing asbestos-containing materials. Teachers, school workers, and most importantly, our children, may be at risk of exposure to this hazardous substance every day1.
Why Children are at Greater Risk from Exposure to Asbestos
You may wonder why children are at greater risk from exposure to asbestos. The reason is twofold. First, children will live longer after exposure, giving the disease more time to develop. For a given dose of asbestos, the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is about 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25, and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.
Second, there is a potential vulnerability due to their physical immaturity. However, this aspect requires further research for a definitive conclusion.
The UK’s Asbestos Crisis: A Call for Urgent Action
The UK’s asbestos crisis requires urgent action. The UK’s regulatory regime has been criticised for permitting asbestos exposure levels far higher than other countries. A child in the UK can legally be exposed to ten times the amount of asbestos than they would be in countries such as Germany.
The UK has imported more asbestos per capita than any other country and has the highest rates of asbestos-related deaths in Europe. A national health crisis awaits us and our children if we do not act now.
We need improved standards and a central register of all asbestos in public buildings across the UK. The government must commission a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of asbestos removal.
The Future of Asbestos Management in UK Schools
The UK government has pledged a significant investment in managing asbestos in schools. However, this approach has been met with criticism. UK regulations state that asbestos should be maintained in situ, provided it is in a “good condition and well protected either by its position or physical protection”. This approach has been criticised for putting people at risk.
The UK government has committed to a strategy for managing asbestos in schools. However, there is some resistance to the idea of total asbestos removal, with the Department for Education, stating that it is usually safer to manage asbestos in good condition than to remove it.
Who is at Higher Risk of Asbestos Exposure?
Asbestos exposure is not limited to a specific group; anyone can be at risk, depending on the environment and their activities. However, certain individuals may face a higher risk due to their work or surroundings. People who have worked in industries such as construction, shipbuilding, and manufacturing, where asbestos was widely used, are often at a higher risk.
Yet, a surprising demographic that is increasingly being affected is school teachers and children. Women in their late forties to mid-sixties who have worked in schools have shown a statistically significant risk, with five times more deaths from mesothelioma among teachers than expected in populations not exposed to the substance.
How are Children Exposed to Asbestos?
Children are often exposed to asbestos in an environment where we expect them to be safest – their schools. Asbestos-containing materials can be found in a wide variety of locations in school buildings. These can include pipe and boiler insulation, ceiling tiles, floor tiles, and sprayed-on fireproofing or insulation.
When these materials become damaged or disturbed, for example during maintenance work or even simply due to ageing, asbestos fibres can be released into the air. A child can inhale these fibres while simply going about their daily activities at school. This exposure is made more severe by the fact that the UK’s regulations allow for higher levels of asbestos exposure than other countries. For instance, the permissible levels of airborne asbestos in the UK can expose a child to 100,000 fibres per day, compared with 10,000 fibres in Germany.
Why are Younger People at a Greater Risk of Developing Asbestos-Related Diseases?
The dangers of asbestos exposure become even more concerning when considering the elevated risk it presents to younger people. The correlation between age at first exposure and risk level is due to the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases, which can range from 20 to 50 years or more.
This means that children exposed to asbestos are at a greater risk because they have a longer life expectancy, providing more time for the disease to develop. For a given dose of asbestos, the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is predicted to be about 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed to asbestos at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25, and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.
The Silent Impact of Asbestos on the UK Population
Asbestos exposure is a major public health issue in the UK. According to figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2017 there were 2,523 deaths from mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the organs caused almost exclusively by the inhalation of asbestos fibres. It’s estimated that a similar number of people die from asbestos-related lung cancers each year.
The UK imported more asbestos per capita than any other country and has the highest rates of asbestos-related deaths in Europe. Many of these deaths are from low-level, chronic exposure to asbestos, debunking the assumption that the harm caused by asbestos is a historical issue relating to traditionally hazardous occupations and industries.
The Urgent Call for Change
Change is needed. The UK’s asbestos regulations are severely lacking, and the health and safety of our children are at stake. The regulatory regime has been criticised for allowing schoolchildren to inhale levels of airborne asbestos much higher than what is accepted in other countries
Unions have criticised the UK regulations, which state that asbestos should be maintained in situ rather than removed, provided it is in a
“good condition and well protected either by its position or physical protection”.
This approach is putting people, especially our children, at risk.
It’s crucial that we recognise and respond to the true extent of the dangers posed by asbestos. A
“national health crisis awaits us and our children if we do not act now”.
The call for action includes the creation of a central register of all asbestos in public buildings across the UK, identifying its precise location, type, and condition, and commissioning a cost-benefit analysis of the removal of all asbestos from these buildings.
The harmful effects of asbestos exposure, particularly in children, are a ticking time bomb. The danger is silent and invisible, yet it threatens to cause irreversible damage. With the highest rates of asbestos-related deaths in Europe, the UK needs to reassess its approach to managing asbestos exposure, particularly in schools.
While the government has acknowledged the problem and promised reviews and changes, more urgent and comprehensive action is needed to protect the most vulnerable among us – our children. As educators, parents, and citizens, we must advocate for stricter regulations, increased transparency, and comprehensive asbestos management in all schools across the UK.
Our children deserve a safe learning environment, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that they get it. Let’s act now to protect our children and ensure a safer future for them.
Call to Action: Secure a Safer Future with Acorn Analytical Services
The challenge of asbestos management is complex, but you don’t have to face it alone. Acorn Analytical Services is here to guide you every step of the way.
We offer comprehensive asbestos management services, including asbestos surveying, asbestos air testing, and asbestos consultancy. Our experts have decades of experience and are committed to ensuring the safety of your building occupants, especially the most vulnerable among us – our children.
Don’t wait for the silent threat of asbestos to become a loud disaster. If you’re worried about asbestos exposure in your school or any other building, get in touch with us today.
At Acorn Analytical Services, we believe that everyone deserves a safe environment. Let’s work together to protect our children from the risk of asbestos exposure and ensure a safer future for them.
Contact us now, and take the first step towards a safer managed asbestos.