Asbestos - Still the silent killer, still found in Schools
As a Specialist Mesothelioma Solicitor for twenty years I have been acting for clients that have been through difficult times and unpleasant experiences. I see people who have been exposed to asbestos in all walks of life. But I can still be surprised when I read about new cases of Mesothelioma that happen in the unlikeliest of places to the unlikeliest of people.
We know that Asbestos was used extensively in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s even though it had been known to cause serious health risks since the late 19th Century.
There are three main types of asbestos - Chrysotile, Amosite and Crocidolite; they are usually called white, brown and blue asbestos respectively. However, they can't be identified just by their colour.
Blue and brown asbestos (the two most dangerous forms) have not been imported into the UK for nearly 20 years. White asbestos was banned (except for a small number of specialised uses) in 1999.
Asbestos was used in many industrial applications, but it is perhaps less well known that it was also used in commercial buildings such as schools, hospitals and offices. This put the unlikeliest of people at risk of developing cancers later in life.
Recently there was the case of a retired teacher who spent 11 years working in classrooms containing asbestos. Unfortunately she was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Her employer paid her compensation of £210,000 after she made a Mesothelioma personal injury claim .
In that case it was revealed that between 1973 and 1984, the teacher worked in two secondary schools and taught in classrooms containing asbestos that was present in the pre-fabricated buildings, in ceiling tiles and on wall panels.
Teaching staff would often have to pick up the falling tiles from the classroom floor since the buildings were in a dilapidated state. These tiles then would be replaced. This process released of asbestos dust into the atmosphere.
Commenting on the case, a National Union of Teachers (NUT) spokesperson said it showed that “nearly 90 percent of schools still contain asbestos”, and that there was still “a long way to go in raising awareness” of the presence of the potentially deadly substance.
The real tragedy is that in many cases injury could have been avoided if the employer had taken proper notice of the available scientific and medical literature.
in each case followed good employment practices and executed appropriate health and safety procedures,
Many cases of mesothelioma, and therefore many claims, could be avoided if the proper warnings and protective equipment were provided and if the right precautions were taken. Kris Keats of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) said: “Instead, teachers have their careers, lives and health blighted and millions of pounds of public money has to be spent in compensation."
The answer to a recent Freedom of Information request shows that 291 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980. Three school teachers died on average each year in the 1980s but this has now risen to 19 deaths a year.
Today, the Governments advice to schools is that they must:
- Know if their building contains asbestos and what condition it is in
- Tell anybody who might disturb the asbestos where it is located
- Refrain from pinning, stapling or tacking displays to walls and ceilings that might contain asbestos
The current rate of 19 deaths a year may mark the early stage of an increasingly severe problem amongst teachers because mesothelioma can remain dormant for between 10 years and 55 years before symptoms arise: the graph above shows that the number of teacher deaths may accelerating. Many people who have mesothelioma don’t survive more than 1 year beyond diagnosis.
It’s sobering to realise that, alarming though these figures are, teachers are not considered a "high risk" population for mesothelioma when compared with other trades and professions. Plumbers, electricians, telephone engineers and carpenters suffer higher rates of mesothelioma because they often worked with asbestos directly.
In the UK about six people die from mesothelioma each day and the incidence of the disease is only now reaching its peak, having been growing for thirty years or more:
- About 2,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.
- At least 70,000 British people will develop mesothelioma in the next 30-50 years from past exposure to asbestos.
- Mesothelioma most commonly occurs in people aged between 40 and 70 years.
- In women, mesothelioma is the cancer most rapidly increasing in incidence
According to a document produced by the HSE, Asbestos is likely to be in a building if:
- It was built or refurbished between 1950 and 1980 and particularly:
- If it also has a steel frame; and/or
- It has boilers with thermal insulation
There will be many more deaths from asbestos diseases in the years to come, because of exposure many years ago.
We are now better prepared to handle this killer material. Larger employers tend to be more aware of the risks and of their responsibilities than in the past. But there are still many schools, colleges, universities and hospitals that contain asbestos-based materials. This asbestos continues to pose a risk to tradesmen such as electricians and plumbers who work on the buildings and also to other occupants such as teachers, students and members of the public. Careful management, monitoring and sometimes removal of asbestos are needed to keep our communities free of asbestos disease.
By Andrew Morgan:
Andrew Morgan is a partner in Fieldfisher's asbestos and personal injury departments. With more than 20-years-experience, Andrew’s claims cover many areas, including:
- Mesothelioma claims
- Catastrophic work accident injury claims
- Overseas claims
Andrew now specialises in highly complex cases such as the case of Elizabeth Bradford, a school teacher who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2001.
Some other Fieldfisher cases where mesothelioma has affected the least likely people:
- Mrs S, a nurse who was diagnosed with mesothelioma after working in a hospital in Leeds
- Sheila, a mesothelioma victim who was exposed to asbestos because she simply lived near and asbestos factory