School science experiments cancelled as asbestos is found in Bunsen burner gauze mats

Concerns have been aired as to the potential risk to pupils and teachers across the UK as a result of the use of equipment that has now been discovered to contain asbestos.

As reported by Sky News and The Telegraph, the Department for Education (DfE) has written to all of the UK’s colleges and secondary schools, ordering them to cease using Bunsen burner gauze mats that are believed to be partially made from the lethal substance.

The schools have been told to remove any gauzes dating back to 1976, amid growing calls to publicly name the two suppliers of the affected mats.

Staff and student safety “of the utmost importance”

In its letter, the DfE advised headteachers to “remove current supplies from use until you have established whether the gauzes used in your school or college have been provided from an asbestos-free source.”

It added that the recipient should follow “with immediate effect” advice on the website of the school science advisory service CLEAPSS.

“We appreciate that following these steps may affect your school or college’s delivery of the science curriculum and science departments may need to reschedule practical science lessons until such time that they can secure a fresh supply of gauzes,” the letter added.

“The safety of staff and students is of the utmost importance.”

HSE assures schools of “extremely low” risk – but worries remain

The type of asbestos discovered in the tested gauzes was the relatively rare tremolite asbestos. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said “limited quantitative testing” on gauze materials from the two suppliers had shown them to consist of 20% to 30% asbestos, although the substance was not detected in all gauzes tested.

The HSE has expressed a belief that the gauzes pose an “extremely low” risk to health, and that schools should halt their use of them only as a precautionary measure.

However, Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, condemned it as “unacceptable” that the suppliers had not been named, and called on schools minister Damian Hinds to demand the release of this information publicly to relieve the “anxiety and distress” of staff, pupils and parents.

He added: “There are serious questions to be asked and answered about this appalling situation.”

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‘400 Britons die each year’ due to asbestos in schools

Any research pointing to the continued pressing need for asbestos awareness training and removal services is always greatly saddening, but also necessary, given persistent perceptions in some quarters that asbestos-related disease ‘only’ affects those who have worked in construction or industrial environments.

The truth is that even seemingly ‘low-risk’ workplaces can still pose a danger of breathing in or other direct contact with the lethal fibres that could later develop into a deadly condition.

This has been demonstrated most recently by figures indicating that almost 400 people die of lung cancer in the UK each year as a consequence of exposure to asbestos at school – whether as a former pupil or teacher.

How have these numbers been determined?

 Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that 40 teachers or support staff die from the asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma, each year, with cases having increased by a third between 2015 and 2016.

Meanwhile, a study undertaken by the American Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that for every school staff member who dies, nine ex-pupils can also be expected to pass away.

This means that there could be about 360 people a year losing their lives due to asbestos they encountered as a pupil at a British school.

As reported by the Daily Express, due to the several decades that it typically requires for asbestos-related disease to develop after the sufferer’s initial contact with the harmful fibres, most cases – albeit not all – do not become apparent and diagnosed until teachers and pupils have left the school.

It is largely because of this that mesothelioma remains responsible for about 2,400 deaths in the UK annually, despite the substance having been banned on these shores in 1999.

Concerns expressed about the lingering risk in educational buildings

Despite such haunting figures, there is no obligation for schools to inform parents of the potential presence of asbestos in their child’s school. The law in this regard differs from the situation for employers, who do have to tell their employees if there is any risk of exposure to asbestos, in addition to being required to protect their workers from coming into contact with the material.

As said by one parent to the BBC’s regional Inside Out programme, in reference to their child’s school in Cumbria being temporarily closed due to the discovery of asbestos: “You expect to send your children to school for them to be safe in the building they’re in.

“You assume everything is managed correctly and if an asbestos disturbance has taken place, it’s acted on immediately – which in this instance, it doesn’t seem to be the case. It could have been there for months.”

Official HSE advice describes schools as “low-risk” for asbestos contact, adding that the substance is safe provided that it is contained, properly managed and left undisturbed.

Nonetheless, for many parents, former pupils, teachers, support staff and their loved ones, such figures as the above point to asbestos awareness training, surveys, air monitoring and related services continuing to play a vital role in ensuring the safety of school building users for many more years to come.

Contact the Trident Asbestos Solutions team today, on 03333 441555, to receive a competitive quote for any of our acclaimed asbestos services.

Asbestos-exposed builder who once worked at the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios dies

It greatly saddened our asbestos removals team here at Trident Asbestos Solutions to learn of the passing of another victim of contact with this lethal substance – this time Cyril Augustine, an erstwhile builder who at one point worked at the BBC’s now-defunct Lime Grove Studios.

As reported by the Croydon Advertiser, the 82-year-old was admitted to Croydon University Hospital on 5th March this year with “a shortness of breath and a heavy cough”, receiving care there for six weeks before dying of metastatic mesothelioma, so-named due to cancer cells having travelled through his body from large tumours in his left lung.

Mr Augustine’s death is just the latest in a long line of tragedies reminding us of the continued pressing importance of asbestos removals in the UK. However, he was also able to reflect with pride on a distinguished career in Britain since arriving here from the Caribbean island of Dominica in 1960.

A high level of contact with asbestos over almost 30 years

 Mr Augustine worked as a builder on a largely self-employed basis over nearly three decades, and closely encountered asbestos on many occasions during his career – including at the famous BBC TV and film studios, where he was required to cut through and fit asbestos sheets.

As explained in a written statement by his daughter Christina at South London Coroner’s Court, “he did this also while working for housing associations doing repairs and maintenance throughout the 1970s and 1980s, working with asbestos with no health and safety.

“He would work with asbestos in old chimney places, floors, partitioned walls and also worked for the Clapham Road Housing Association carrying out repairs, maintenance and general building work which had some exposure to asbestos on these jobs as well.”

Even in his first job in the UK for Robert Hart & Sons in 1960, Mr Augustine was required to cut asbestos sheets and attach them to doors to make them fireproof.

“No doubt in the evidence”

 The husband and father – latterly of Marlow Road, Penge – was diagnosed with the disease in August 2015, and also received treatment at the Princess Royal University Hospital in Orpington in 2017.

Recording the death as industrial disease, Dr William Dolman, assistant coroner, commented: “The post-mortem indicated a wider spread of cancer in the form of metastatic mesothelioma. He had clear contact with asbestos as most cases like this do.

“There is no doubt in the evidence with his daughter’s statement and his employment he was exposed when carrying out building work.

“The date of the contact was in the 1960s and latterly in the 1970s and 1980s, that’s still a 30-year period where the malignant developed which killed him before it was identified and diagnosed.”

 

The BBC purchased Lime Grove Studios in 1949 as a “temporary measure” until Television Centre – now also disposed of by the corporation – was ready. The broadcaster continued to use the buildings until 1991, and they were demolished in 1993.

Call 03333 441555 today for an in-depth discussion about our asbestos removals consultancy and other services that could be instrumental in keeping the users and occupants of your buildings safe from the potentially toxic effects of asbestos.

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