Children and teachers at thousands of schools across the UK could be at risk of developing cancer thanks to a policy of leaving asbestos in place, MPs have heard.
Campaigner Charles Pickles warned the Commons Work and Pensions Committee on Wednesday that between 200 and 300 children every year would have their lives shortened by asbestos-related illness “just as a result of going to school”.
Mr Pickles, a former asbestos consultant who founded the campaign group Airtight on Asbestos, added: “Female primary school teachers now have one of the highest prevalences of mesothelioma as an occupational group.
“This is alarming, because female primary school teachers never worked with asbestos. They have merely worked in buildings containing asbestos.”
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer, mainly affecting the lungs, commonly caused by exposure to asbestos fibres, and kills around 2,500 people in the UK each year.
It previously mainly affected people who had worked directly with asbestos, such as in heavy industry or construction, but the committee, which is holding an inquiry into asbestos management, heard this is changing.
Joanne Gordon, chairwoman of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups’ Forum UK, said: “We are seeing more people with low-level exposure to asbestos. We see a change in occupation, we are seeing more women diagnosed with mesothelioma.”
Tony Hood, a solicitor who works with people who have been exposed to asbestos, said more sufferers who had been indirectly exposed to asbestos were contacting his firm for help.
He said: “It’s clear that people continue to be exposed despite the asbestos ban and despite the asbestos regulation. That’s the legacy of leaving asbestos in situ as it comes back to haunt those affected.”
Mr Pickles was particularly concerned about so-called “CLASP” schools, prefabricated schools built between the 1950s and 1970s that contain substantial amounts of asbestos. Around 3,000 are still in use in the UK.
He said the fact these schools contain the more dangerous brown asbestos, combined with their dilapidated state and the vulnerability of young children to asbestos exposure, meant the risks were “too hot to handle”.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show 371 teachers died of mesothelioma between 2001 and 2020, including 139 primary school and nursery teachers and 110 in secondary schools.
Other witnesses highlighted similar problems with hospitals and social housing, although people working there may be unaware of the dangers or even of the possibility that asbestos is present.
Mr Pickles said the UK should abandon its policy of “management in situ”, where asbestos is left in place as long as it is not damaged or disturbed, and introduce phased removal.
Breathing in the fibres released when asbestos is disturbed or damaged can cause illnesses such as mesothelioma, meaning undisturbed asbestos is often considered safe.
But Mr Pickles said much of the UK’s asbestos is now in a “dilapidated condition” and releasing fibres, while tests to determine the level of asbestos in an area are not sensitive enough to be safe.
He said: “The risks are increasing with age rather than decreasing.”
“Committee chairman Stephen Timms raised concerns about Health and Safety Executive (HSE) monitoring of asbestos risks in 2020 following a report by the Res Publica think tank in conjunction with Mr Pickles’ Airtight on Asbestos campaign.”
In response to Mr Timms’ concerns, employment minister Mims Davies said the HSE would begin research this year to review asbestos control regulations.