Photography: Canadian Press/Rex/Shutterstock
Fresh concerns have been raised about the amount of asbestos left in run-down schools and hospitals, after a new analysis found nearly 150 health and education workers were recorded as having died of material-related cancer in recent years.
According to official data, there have been 147 deaths among health and education workers since 2017. Experts believe the figure is likely a significant underestimate due to the way someone’s profession is recorded on death certificates.
Around 94 education professionals and 53 healthcare workers in England have died of mesothelioma, according to an analysis of death certificate data recorded by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Mesothelioma is a form of cancer usually linked to prolonged exposure to asbestos.
It comes amid mounting grievances within the NHS and principals about the state of hospitals and school buildings, with concerns that budgets for both have been inexorably slashed by the austerity campaign that began in 2010.
The data was provided by the ONS at the request of Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson, who is examining the state of school buildings. Of the 94 education professionals, 39 worked in primary and nursery schools, 21 in secondary schools and 21 in further and higher education institutions. The remaining 13 include staff with special educational needs, senior education professionals and Ofsted inspectors.
Of the 53 health care workers who died, 36 were nurses or midwives, two were therapists and 15 were classified as “medical professionals” which encompasses a range of professions, such as doctors, psychologists and radiographers.
The government is already under pressure from Labor and other parties to release secret data on the state of school buildings. THE Observer revealed last year that internal government documents suggested some school buildings were a “risk to life” due to their decay.
It follows a decision by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) last year to launch a UK-wide program of inspections into how schools manage risks from asbestos. Scientists are attempting to initiate studies into the ongoing effects of asbestos on teachers and students. Statisticians have found a mesothelioma death rate that “borders on statistical significance” among teachers born between 1955 and 1974. The unions are planning to work with Professor Julian Peto, who has studied the issue for many years.
Kevin Courtney, joint secretary general of the National Education Union, has called for a major investment program in school buildings. “Capital spending on school buildings has plummeted since 2010, down 50% in real terms,” he said.
“This simply fuels the problems for the future and fails to address the spread of asbestos in schools, which should have been addressed years ago. It is a catalog of abandonment that urgently needs to be addressed with a new focus on retrofitting school buildings to make them safe and sustainable.”
Wilson said the ongoing asbestos problem could still lead to needless deaths. “These devastating figures show the tragic human cost of years of underinvestment in our educational and hospital buildings,” she said. “No teacher or nurse should put their health at risk when she shows up for work every day.
“Government should take urgent action to identify and remove asbestos from high risk areas such as corridors and stairwells. Instead, schools have to skip routine maintenance to balance the books. Every dilapidated school and hospital represents a concrete sign of years of neglect by the conservatives of our public services.
Jon Richards, assistant general secretary of Unison, said: “Too many school and hospital buildings are filled with asbestos. But the absence of a national registry means the real picture is obscured. Extra government funding for more safety inspections is a must, as is speeding up the removal program. Public buildings must be free of deadly fibers.
“The solution is an adequately funded housing program. Pupils, patients and staff would no longer have to endure unsafe and unpleasant environments. This would also help kick-start the much-needed economic recovery.”
Ministers, the HSE and experts have said simply removing all asbestos may not be the safest solution to the problem, as disturbing the material can lead to maximum exposure.
A government spokesman said: ‘We take the health and safety of those working in the public sector incredibly seriously. All local authorities, governing bodies and academic associations should have robust plans in place to effectively manage asbestos in school buildings. To support schools, we have allocated over £15bn for essential maintenance and improvements, including asbestos removal, and we are also significantly rebuilding or renovating 500 buildings over the next decade.
“In addition to this, we provided the NHS £4.2bn of capital last financial year to support local priorities, including the maintenance and refurbishment of their premises, plus a further £8.4bn which will be available this and next financial year”.