Taken from the Big Issue in the North magazine
The widower of a teacher who died from the asbestos related disease, mesothelioma, has welcomed support from the National Union of Teachers. (NUT)
Britain’s largest teaching union has added its voice to the campaign for more monitoring of asbestos use in school buildings.
The National Union of Teachers wants the government to survey the UK’s school stock to determine how much contains the fibre, now known to cause fatal tumours years down the line in some people who were exposed to it.
Asbestos is found in many buildings constructed before 1985, when it was banned in this country. Strong and fire-resistant, it was frequently used to insulate pipes and electrical appliances and on floor coverings.
But inhalation of its dust and fibres is blamed for many deaths, in particular from a rare and incurable form of cancer, mesothelioma. Up to 4,000 people die from this every year, with the epidemic not expected to peak until 2020. About three-quarters of Britain’s schools are thought to contain asbestos.
The government was first made of the problems for schools in 1967, but some experts says it is safest to leave the material in place if it is in good condition.
The NUT estimates that at least 253 teachers have died since 1980 from mesothelioma , but since the illness takes between 25 and 50 years to develop, the number of former school pupils who may have died as a result of asbestos in their classrooms is more difficult to gauge.
The NUT now wants the presence of asbestos in schools to be properly monitored, but an ongoing government survey of the UK’s school stock specifically ignores this issue.
A union spokesperson said: “[This would uncover] the overall scale of the problem, identify those with the worst problems and allow the Government to make sound long-term financial forecasts and ensure resources are appropriately allocated for maintenance, refurbishment or replacement.”
The widower of a teacher who died from mesothelioma following a 30-year career has welcomed the union’s stance on the issue. Michael Lees has been pushing for change since his wife, Gina, died in 2000 - just three months after being diagnosed. She had taught in infants schools in Cornwall, Norfolk and Devon.
Lees, an artist and former airline pilot, went on to form the campaign group Asbestos in Schools, which seeks to improve its management within the education sector.
The group’s supporters include MPs, the asbestos consultants association ATaC, six teaching trade unions and three support staff unions.
Lees is seeking to overturn the Department for Education’s omission of asbestos from the schools property data survey, which will be used to decide future funding allocations to schools.
The government maintains that responsibility for asbestos remains with local authorities. This is despite many academy schools no longer falling under their authority.
Lees said: “[The government is] acting “acting irresponsibly and collecting data which will be meaningless, as are they saying they will fund school improvements that don’t include any costs for removing asbestos when works on buildings subsequently take place?
“Burying your head in the sand won’t wash these problems away. I am heartened by the NUT resolution and would like the government to follow the lead of the Australian government which has committed to removing asbestos from their schools by 2030 in order to prevent more deaths of teachers and pupils.”