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Call for careful monitoring to address issue of asbestos in schools

12 March 2015

BOHS, the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection, has called for careful monitoring and risk assessments conducted by suitably qualified asbestos professionals in order to address the challenging question of how to deal with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in schools.

As the public debate on asbestos in schools continues, most recently with BBC news reports on the subject and some suggestions that the material could be present in up to nine out of 10 schools in the UK, BOHS says that a measured approach is needed.

The prevalence of ACMs in schools is the legacy of a post-war building programme which, in some instances, incorporated the extensive use of asbestos products, such as asbestos insulating board (AIB), floor tiling and cement products, to name but a few. So wide was the range of uses that asbestos can potentially be found in any building built before the year 2000.

When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. These fibres, when inhaled, can cause serious diseases such as mesothelioma and other lung cancers. The diseases often take a long time to develop, but once diagnosed, are generally fatal and it is estimated that currently, past asbestos exposures cause around 5000 deaths every year in the UK.

However, BOHS advises that it is not necessary, or indeed desirable, to remove all ACMs within schools. Rather, the society says, it is important, especially in the case of schools where vulnerable children spend their day, that the issue is carefully managed and monitored.

Tracey Boyle, chartered occupational hygienist and director of Workplace Environment Solutions said: "It is impossible to remove all the ACMs in schools and also unnecessary in many instances. What is most important is that ACMs in schools are identified (by carrying out an asbestos survey) and are not disturbed in an uncontrolled manner - either during day to day activities, during maintenance or capital projects. Wherever there are ACMS in a school building, their condition should be monitored on a routine basis. If there are signs of damage or disturbance, then the materials should be encapsulated and protected, or removed, as appropriate in the circumstances.”

She added: "Any materials which could potentially contain asbestos will require a proper risk assessment to determine how they should be dealt with. Where materials need to be removed, it is imperative that this is carried out by suitably qualified professionals. Certain materials should only be removed by HSE-licensed contractors for example."

Commenting on the subject of qualifications, Steve Perkins, CEO of BOHS, said: "Having developed the very first major asbestos competency qualifications, the well-known Proficiency or P modules on asbestos, BOHS would like to emphasise the importance of suitable training and qualifications in dealing with asbestos in schools, or indeed in any other buildings. As a Society, our role is to continue to provide leadership to support the management of asbestos in British and international schools by means of our professional qualifications and standards setting. In the case of a material such as asbestos, it is fair to say that competency can be a matter of life and death.”