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 remains prevalent in British school buildings

Asbestos in schools

It seems that every day or week, a new story emerges drawing attention to the fact that asbestos is far from a thing of the past, and that it is in fact continuing to be breathed in by new victims. One such story was that recently published in the Daily Express, revealing that almost nine in every 10 British school buildings still harbour the potentially fatal fibres.

The figures, which will be of great interest to many of those educational and other organisations contemplating investment in asbestos air testing and awareness training, were sourced from Freedom of Information requests to local authorities. They showed that the lethal dust is still present in 86 per cent of the country’s schools, which is much higher than previously thought.

However, leading asbestos expert Professor Julian Peto warned that it would be too expensive to remove all of the fibres, given that such a task would entail rebuilding schools and would “only save” 25 deaths a year. He added that it would be predominantly those over the age of 70 who would die as a result of any exposure during childhood.

The figures were obtained by campaigning group Asbestos in Schools, with founder Michael Lees accusing successive governments of brushing the issue “under the carpet” given the decades that it can take for the disease to develop. He bemoaned the “large number” of children who were exposed to asbestos in schools, which he said was “contributing to the terrible death toll.”

Father-of-two Mr Lees lost his then 51-year old primary school teacher wife, Gina, to the deadly asbestos-linked disease of the covering of the lungs, mesothelioma, in 2000. He described as “a step in the right direction” a review last week that ordered that teachers should be given compulsory asbestos training.

Of the 2,535 deaths a year in Britain that are attributed to mesothelioma, it is thought that 300 involved exposure to asbestos in schools.

Talk to Trident Surveying today about not just the appropriate asbestos awareness training for your own organisation, but also the most professional asbestos air testing and monitoring service. The latter encompasses four stage clearance testing, reassurance air tests, leak air tests and background air tests.

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