The widow of a teacher who died after contracting asbestos cancer in a Merton school says that his desperate hope now is that none of his wife's pupils is affected by the same terrible disease.
John Bennett, whose wife Kathleen died of mesothelioma in May 2015, hopes that telling her story will protect her pupils, now in their 40s, by altering them to the danger that lurked in their school so they can get early treatment if necessary.
73-year-old painter and decorator John, who has lived in Tooting and Morden his whole life, says that Kathleen would want her legacy to be helping the children she loved teaching.
Kathleen Bennett, who was 66 when she died, taught at the St Thomas of Canterbury Middle School in Mitcham during the 1970s and 80s. Built in 1910, the school underwent electrical repairs in January 1987 which resulted in asbestos in the roof being disturbed.
The fatal dust probably fell down from the ceiling through hatches into the classrooms and coated the surfaces without anyone being aware at the time.
School logbooks show that a heating engineer alerted the school keeper to asbestos in the roof above the school hall and staffroom in 1985. Although removal work was scheduled for the summer of 1986, it was not clear whether any work was actually carried out. The London Borough of Merton was responsible for all maintenance in the school.
Four months after the electrical work began, a safety inspection identified dust from the worst types of asbestos - blue, brown and white – in the air in the school. The work was immediately shut down and a clean-up operation ordered.
All the teachers exposed to the dust were supposedly added to an asbestos risk register, although it is not clear how thorough this was.
Unfortunately, it was too late to save Kathleen, who was likely exposed to the fatal dust in her classroom and walking around the corridors. Typically, symptoms of mesothelioma, the cancer caused by exposure to asbestos dust, can take up to 30 years to appear.
Kathleen, who mainly taught English and history, left St Thomas in 1989 to teach at another local school, before retiring at 60. She was a keen amateur choralist.
Peter Williams, the solicitor representing John and Kathleen, said that calculations made to agree a settlement for John and his two sons reckoned the disease had deprived Kathleen of 18 years of life.
Mr Williams, who is an expert in mesothelioma cases, said that the terrible thing about asbestos dust is that exposure to one fibre of dust can be fatal because there is no threshold dose below which there is no risk.
Kathleen complained to her doctor of a tickly cough and breathlessness in February 2014, which was affecting her singing. An x-ray and biopsy revealed she was suffering from mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Despite chemotherapy treatment, she died in May the following year.
John and Kathleen met at ballroom dancing evening classes in 1972, where John says he was "captivated" by her long dark hair and a choker necklace she was wearing. They married in 1978 and had two sons, Stephen and Philip.
"I was so proud of Kathleen for everything she achieved, particularly when I heard her sing. My favourite song was Carmina Burana. It made me cry every time."
John says the support of his sons and his local community, where he's been a scout leader for 27 years, has helped him cope with losing his wife.
"Kathleen loved teaching and I know she would want me to tell her story to protect the children she taught," he said.
"She'd be proud if her legacy could somehow be to prevent any of those children from going through the awful time she had with the disease. If they get tested early, I hope and pray that, if they are affected, treatment will at least prolong their life."
Peter Williams went on to say:
London Borough of Merton admitted liability and for breach of its duty of care to protect employees. The council agreed this week to pay a settlement of £250,000.
"We are seeing more and more teachers suffering from mesothelioma having been exposed to asbestos working in schools years ago, usually without knowing. Kathleen remembered "some scare" over asbestos at her school in the 1980s. It was only through extensive enquiries with witnesses and repeated requests to the council for information that the truth emerged."
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