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Asbestos-containing materials can be found in many schools built before 1999 when the manufacture and supply of asbestos was banned in the UK. Asbestos can be found in many different areas within a school, in particular it was used as thermal insulation and fire protection in the following forms:

  • on pipes and boilers by way of asbestos lagging
  • sprayed on ducts and voids
  • asbestos-insulation board used in partitioning and ducts and ceiling tiles
  • floor tiles
  • cement roofing and guttering
  • textured coatings (e.g. artex)

There is not considered to be any risk associated with the presence of asbestos materials, unless they are disturbed or damaged. This then results in asbestos fibres being released into the air. When inhaled asbestos fibres give rise to a risk of asbestos diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestos related lung cancer, asbestosis, asbestos related pleural thickening and pleural plaques. These conditions do not develop immediately and there are often 20 or more years before a diagnosis of an asbestos related disease is made. This can result in significant worry and stress for anyone who has been exposed to asbestos dust or fibres.

Asbestos could be in any part of a school building, from floor tiles to roofs, toilet seats to wall panels and all things in-between. One of the biggest issues seen with schools over the last 20 years in the UK is mainly down to poor maintenance of these old buildings.

The UK has one of the highest numbers of asbestos‑related deaths in the world, over 5,500 deaths per year and this figure is rising.

The incidence of mesothelioma diagnosis from exposure to asbestos in schools has seen an increase in recent years. A recent report from ResPublica in November 2019 “Don’t Breathe In – Bridging the Asbestos Safety Gap a Review of Research, Policy and Practice” highlighted that nurses and teachers are three to five times more likely to develop mesothelioma than the general UK population. This is largely related to the fact that many public buildings within the UK still contain high levels of asbestos. 

The report estimated that there are six millions tons of asbestos across 1.5 million buildings within the UK.

The report also highlighted that although we are able to see an increase in the number of teachers who have contracted mesothelioma, 300 recorded deaths since 1980, there’s no way to know how many people have died as a result of exposure to asbestos dust as a pupil.

Boyes Turner solicitors have recently settled a case for a mother of three who had been diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2015. Mary had been exposed to asbestos dust whilst she was a pupil at Littleport Primary School and Littleport Village College in Cambridgeshire. Mary attended Littleport Primary School between 1968 and 1974 and Littleport Village College between 1974 and 1979.

As medical evidence highlighted in Mary’s case, mesothelioma can occur after low levels of exposure to asbestos and there is no threshold dose of asbestos below which there is no risk.

The allegations of Mary’s exposure to asbestos centred on the asbestos lagging and exposure to asbestos in science lessons.

With the Education and Skills Funding Agency estimating that up to 80% of all UK schools contain asbestos, and there being no safe level of exposure, are we doing enough to protect our teachers and pupils from the risk of developing mesothelioma?

The ResPublica report puts forward a number of proposals to improve our safety standards and the risk to pupils and teachers including:

  1. Establishing a central register of all asbestos currently in place in public buildings across the UK (including schools, hospitals and social housing).
  2. Identify precise location type and condition of said asbestos.
  3. Commissioning a cost benefit analysis for the removal of all asbestos from public buildings in the UK.
  4. Committing to a framework for phased removal on the basis of danger and risk to public health.

It is not known how many adults have died as a result of exposure to asbestos dust whilst school pupils, but a study in the USA has estimated that for every teachers death nine pupils will subsequently die from exposure to asbestos whilst at school. School pupils are more likely to disturb asbestos according to the ResPublica report, as they are at greater risk of disrupting and damaging parts of the building and equipment when playing games.

At the time of writing this article, there is no settled case law to establish that exposure to asbestos in science lessons is sufficient to be both in breach of the local authority’s duty of care and to have caused levels of asbestos exposure sufficient enough to have caused mesothelioma. 

However, there have been claims from former pupils who have successfully sued local authorities for exposure to asbestos dust whilst in school. In particular, the case of Dianne Willmore which was the UK’s first recorded case of a pupil successfully suing their local authority for negligent exposure to asbestos. Dianne Willmore described several occasions during the 1970s while she was a pupil at a newly built comprehensive school in Knowsley of asbestos being disturbed. Dianne Willmore’s case was not related to exposure to asbestos in science lessons, but due to exposure to asbestos from the fabric of the building. 

Boyes Turner’s expert mesothelioma and asbestos claims solicitors have previously obtained an out of court settlement of £275,000 for a 36 year old Devon man, Chris Wallace, who was pursuing Devon County Council for alleged exposure to asbestos whilst at Yeo Valley Primary School, Yeo Valley Secondary School and South Molton United Church of England Junior School and South Molton School and Community College. In addition to allegations of damaged school buildings and lagged pipework Mr Wallace also described the use of asbestos mats in science lessons which were chipped, broken and would be thrown around like Frisbees. 

With recent fears of asbestos mats being used in 2018 by pupils in Northern Ireland, the risk of mesothelioma from science lessons appears to be an ongoing concern.

Mary’s case is one of many that we are likely to encounter as we see an increase in the number of low level exposure cases resulting from working or attending schools in buildings containing asbestos and from using asbestos based products in schools. Unfortunately, we are likely to see these claims continue to be vigorously defended until the court hands down a judgment on exposure to asbestos dust in science lessons.