Trade unions are set to work with a leading cancer expert to study the exposure of women in their late-40s to mid-60s to asbestos in schools, it has been reported.
The Guardian newspaper has said the National Education Union (NEU) is among those set to work with Professor Julian Peto, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The proposed study will identify teachers who have had lung operations so that any samples taken from them can be studied to detect levels of asbestos exposure.
“Most teachers born since 1955 began work after the 1970s – when asbestos was no longer being installed in schools – so their exposures were from the asbestos already installed, much of which is still there,” Peto told The Guardian. “The question is what the continuing risk is, and what should be done to reduce it.
“The updated data for 2011-2020 now shows an excess in female teachers born 1955-74 (19 mesothelioma deaths, versus 12.3 expected), which borders on statistical significance, although the numbers are still too small to give a reliable estimate of the continuing risk. We would like to study this important question. The lifetime mesothelioma risk can be predicted from these asbestos levels in lungs,” he added.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported more than 5,000 asbestos-related deaths in 2019 across the population as a whole, including from cancers like mesothelioma.
Asbestos and schools
However, statisticians have now detected a rate of mesothelioma deaths that “borders on statistical significance” among teachers born between 1955 and 1974, the paper has reported.
Although asbestos was banned in 1999 it was used extensively in England from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, meaning many schools still contain some of the material.
A government survey in 2019 found that 80.9% of participating schools said asbestos was present on their estate. Most were found to have a plan for managing it.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “This research is vitally important. We believe it will establish once and for all the risk asbestos in school buildings poses to the health of teachers, support staff and children. We hope the results will convince the government of the urgent need for an independent review of current policy, which is to manage rather than remove asbestos.”
The TUC is also backing the research, with Shelly Asquith, health, safety and wellbeing policy officer, saying: “It’s good to get recognition, and hopefully some scientific evidence, to back up the work we’ve been doing for a few years on this. We want asbestos removed.”
The Airtight on Asbestos campaign has also welcomed the move. However, it has cautioned that, while this sort of study can be helpful in detecting levels of asbestos among those already exposed, it will not serve as an early warning indicator or preventative measure.
“The priority is to identify where asbestos is located in buildings, assess its condition, and remove it according to the risks it presents as part of a phased removal programme,“ the campaign has said.