Asbestos in Schools: The Facts

Posted by Holly Breckon on Oct 13, 2022 4:13:30 PM

We’re not ones to start on a dramatic note (well, maybe we are, but this one is justified- honestly!) Asbestos is a killer.

When you hear ‘Asbestos’, is your first thought ‘Uh-oh’? We all know it’s bad, but many of us don’t know what it really is and why it’s so feared.

Unfortunately, there's no sugar-coating it; if you breathe in materials containing asbestos, you’ve got a high risk of reduced life expectancy. So, you’ve got a duty of care to protect your teachers, visitors, pupils and public from this carcinogen, and you must have measures in place to manage asbestos hazards in your school effectively.

But before we delve into the ‘how’ of dealing with asbestos in your school (our follow-up blog will cover that, don’t worry), let’s look at what asbestos actually is, the history behind it, where it hides and the damage it can do.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral. There are six types, all of which are composed of long and thin fibrous crystals, each fibre being composed of many microscopic ‘fibrils’ that can be released into the atmosphere by abrasion and other processes.

That’s the technical bit over…

Seen as a ‘wonder material', the government labelled it as a versatile material in 1950 and it was mined for its useful properties up until the 1980s. Asbestos was mixed into building materials and woven into fabrics to create strong, heat-resistant, and fire-proof insulation.

Are there different types of asbestos?

There are! Did you know there are actually different colours of asbestos? White asbestos (Chrysotile) is the most commonly used as it’s found in roofing materials and cement, but there’s also brown (Amosite) and blue (Crocidolite) asbestos, although they’re less common.

Can you see asbestos?

All asbestos is odourless, tasteless and colour indistinguishable unless inspected under a microscope so it’s possible to be exposed to its menace whilst being blissfully unaware of it burrowing into your chest!

Where can asbestos be found in schools?

Asbestos is most likely to be found in insulating boards, lagging and asbestos cement products in roofing or walls plus sprayed coatings (Artex to you and me!) used as fire protection and acoustic control for structural steelwork.

You may also be surprised to hear that asbestos can also be found in plastics, such as floor tiles, sink pads, cisterns, and toilet seats!

Asbestos is so last season!

Nope, sadly, it’s not!

Asbestos is not just a problem of the past, although now banned in the UK, it can be present today in any building built or refurbished before the year 2000. So, it’s highly likely your school falls in that time window unless you’re in a spangly new build.

What are the dangers of asbestos to people in your school?

When asbestos is contained it’s relatively safe but it’s when the fibres are disturbed that the little blighters start their journey of destruction!

Asbestos causes around 5,000 deaths every year according to the HSE, which is more than the number of people killed on the road! So, although the fibres are small, they certainly have a huge impact.

When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. When these fibres are inhaled, they can cause serious diseases. These diseases won’ affect you immediately; they often take a long time to develop, but once diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything. That’s why it’s important that you protect yourself and those in your school now.

What damage can asbestos do?

Inhalation of asbestos fibres can lead to various dangerous lung conditions, including:

  • Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a type of cancer which affects the lining of the lungs (pleura) and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract (peritoneum). It’s almost exclusively related to asbestos exposure and by the time it is diagnosed, it is almost always fatal.
  • Asbestos-related lung cancer: Asbestos-related lung cancer is the same as lung cancer caused by smoking and other causes. It’s estimated that there is around one lung cancer for every mesothelioma death according to the HSE.
  • Asbestosis: Asbestosis is a serious scarring condition of the lung that normally occurs after heavy exposure to asbestos over many years. This condition can cause progressive shortness of breath, and in severe cases can be fatal.
  • Pleural thickening: Pleural thickening is generally a problem that happens after heavy asbestos exposure. The lining of the lung (pleura) thickens and swells. If this gets worse, the lung itself can be squeezed and can cause shortness of breath and discomfort in the chest.

The good(!) news is that asbestos isn’t an instant killer, but it can stay in your system and slowly damage your organs for 10-60 years - so unlike quitting smoking or going on a diet, you can’t reverse the effects.

So asbestos is now notorious as a serious health and safety hazard.

Why does asbestos management matter in your school?

If you have carpenters, plumbers, electricians, builders, decorators, or any other person coming into school that may come into close contact with asbestos and damage its structure through hammering, drilling, or cutting, you need to be aware of the risks and keep everyone in and visiting your school safe from its fibrous jaws.

Young people are also at greater risk of danger as they’re still developing, but that doesn’t mean your older teachers, helpers etc are off the hook either!

Take a look at our Be Asbestos Ready Toolkit – it has everything you need to swot up on asbestos including our awareness course, asbestos materials checklist, how to prepare for an HSE inspection, how to ensure you’re compliant and how to spot asbestos in your school. It’s your one-stop shop for all things asbestos!

Keep an eye out for our next asbestos blog where we’ll take you through super simple steps to ensure your school is ready for when the HSE comes a knocking. Or if you'd like to make a start of recording your own asbestos data and management plans, why not try out iAM Compliant for free?

Topics: Premises and Estates