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Report estimates tens of thousands of school staff and pupils may die from mesothelioma

A new report published by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee has concluded that, based on data on previous deaths from mesothelioma of teachers and pupils exposed in 1960-1980s, the UK may face a devastating third wave of asbestos-related casualties over the coming years.

The findings in the report suggest an estimated 5-10,000 pupils and staff may have already died from mesothelioma following exposure in their former schools between 1960 and the 1980s.

Because of poor asbestos management in CLASP schools (prefabricated buildings introduced by the Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme in 1957 to meet urgent need after World War II) encouraged by years of inaction by subsequent governments, current asbestos levels in such schools are also likely to be higher than they were pre-1980s as buildings have continued to deteriorate.

Most of the schools with substantial amosite asbestos are still in use and the report's investigation of 60 CLASP schools suggests that almost all may still have substantial asbestos throughout. Consequently, the predicted third mesothelioma wave is likely to become a tidal wave for school attendees post-1980.

The authors of the report blame ongoing government failure to supply necessary funds to remove unsafe asbestos from schools as putting thousands of people at risk. They say calls for an audit of asbestos in the UK was rejected because commissioning a nationwide survey might provoke unnecessary panic.

"Two decades ago," the report says, "the government should have been aware that cumulative exposure of even low levels of asbestos elevated the risk of developing mesothelioma. They already knew that children were particularly vulnerable. Shockingly, they chose to cut asbestos management costs, and failed to develop effective measures of the risk – particularly to children - from cumulative asbestos exposure in buildings."

The report also states that there is little financial incentive for employers (including the government) to reduce exposure to asbestos because employers do not bear the vast majority of the costs associated with the consequences of exposure to some of the risk factors they control.

Worryingly, the report also highlights that data from the GB Occupational Mesothelioma Statistics may underestimate how many people have died from mesothelioma contracted in schools because many support staff, including school caretakers, cleaners, technicians and cooks -  who are more likely to work in areas known to have additional asbestos for fire protection purposes – are not included in official statistics. Such statistics also focus on people dying from mesothelioma aged 75 and under, whereas a significant proportion of mesothelioma deaths occur in people aged 75 and above.

Since it is reasonable to estimate that the number of pupil mesothelioma deaths is likely to have increased since 1980 at the same rate as teacher mesothelioma deaths, the number of former pupils who will contract mesothelioma post-1980 will likely increase massively, both because children are known to be more vulnerable to asbestos exposure than adults and will anyway live longer after exposure than their older teachers.

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