Toxic asbestos present in more than 180 schools in the Eastlondonlines boroughs

Deptford Park Primary School – one of 180 local schools containing high levels of asbestos. Pic: Reading Tom

Potentially dangerous amounts of asbestos are present in 180 local schools in the four Eastlondonlines boroughs, according to new research.

Remove Asbestos from Schools, a campaigning group, submitted a series of Freedom of Information requests to every local education authority across England and Wales –  this led to the revelation that 39 Croydon schools and nurseries contain potentially lethal levels of asbestos.

Asbestos – a term for a group of minerals made of microscopic fibres – was often used in buildings for insulation, flooring and roofing before its dangers were realised. It is now banned in the UK.

According to the British Lung Foundation, buildings constructed before the year 2000 may still have asbestos in them. The substance is linked with numerous lung diseases including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

ELL has found that Tower Hamlets and Lewisham contain asbestos ridden schools and nurseries, at 70 and 71 respectively, almost double that of Croydon. Hackney has yet to respond to the campaign group’s request.

Lucie Stephens, founder of the campaign, said that too many parents have been “kept in the dark” about the risks of exposure to asbestos. She began the campaign after her mother, who was a teacher, died in June from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Stephens said:

“We are very angry that Mum was taken so quickly and by a disease that is completely preventable. We promised her that we would do our best to ensure that others won’t have to suffer like her.”

“At the moment the Department for Education is hiding behind outdated guidance from the HSE [Health and Safety Executive]. The FOIs show that HSE is asleep at the wheel in relation to this issue.”

Schools containing asbestos are statutorily required to have an Asbestos Management Plan. In Croydon, nine of the schools in question were found to be operating without a plan.

A spokesman for Croydon Council told the Croydon Advertiser: “Asbestos was a common building material used for many years and so anything constructed prior to the mid-90s is likely to have had some present. In the great majority of cases it poses little or no risk when left undisturbed.”

Pat Watson, head of building development at Tower Hamlets, told ELL that the council has an asbestos policy for schools “to ensure risks are managed. It is standard good practice not to remove asbestos unless it is damaged or has to be removed in the course of other works. Asbestos has been removed at schools where this becomes necessary.

But the Remove Asbestos from Schools campaign sees this reaction as too passive since it still allows for children and teachers to be put at risk. “Asbestos in schools is an expensive problem but ignoring it won’t make our school staff or children any safer, said Stephens. “The asbestos that is in our schools now is old, making it more likely to degrade and release toxic fibres.”

A report from the NHS Committee on Carcinogenicity states that a five-year-old child exposed to asbestos is five times more likely to get mesothelioma than a person first exposed to asbestos at age thirty. The effects of asbestos exposure can also take up to sixty years to show symptoms.

Despite having support from some teaching unions, Stephens said the response from the government minister has been “very limited.” 60 per cent of the FOI requests made by the campaign have been responded to so far. In addition to the names of schools containing asbestos, they have revealed 97 claims of asbestos-related illness from being exposed in schools across England and Wales.

While the remaining requests are being processed, Remove Asbestos from Schools has started an online petition to call for more transparency from schools and local authorities. Lewisham Council did not respond to requests for comment.

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