Safety worries as asbestos in 60% of Welsh schools

As reported by BBC news, inconsistent monitoring of asbestos in Welsh schools could put pupils and staff at risk, unions have warned

A Freedom of Information (FoI) request by BBC Wales shows more than 900 schools are known to contain asbestos. Most are regularly inspected, but some surveys are 10 years old and often asbestos is suspected but not known. Unions want urgent action to be taken. The Welsh Local Government Association said councils worked to “eliminate any risks as quickly as possible”.

Earlier this year there were concerns that some asbestos surveys were out of date after a pupil kicked a hole in a school wall, exposing previously undetected asbestos. Asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999, because the fibres are linked to diseases including mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer. However it can be found in many public buildings, including schools and hospitals built or refurbished during the last century. If managed carefully, the presence of asbestos is less dangerous, as fibres must be inhaled to cause harm.

According to Welsh government guidance each school must have an up to date survey to identify the presence of asbestos. A BBC Wales FoI request shows that while some councils regularly re-inspected buildings, some checks had not been carried out for years, with some dating back to 2011. While some asbestos has been removed from schools, most cases are monitored because of the high cost of removal.

New figures, show that as of May 2021, 903 schools in Wales had asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), though the figure is likely to be higher as four councils did not respond. This means asbestos is known to be present in at least 60% of all schools in Wales.

Most of the highest risk ACMs are in areas not used by teaching staff or pupils, such as boiler rooms, lofts and basements.

David Evans, Wales secretary for the National Education Union, said the amount of asbestos in Welsh schools was “alarming”.

“We would be keen to know what plans each local authority has in place for the safe removal of this asbestos, it is simply unacceptable in this day and age,” he said.

Mike Payne, of GMB union, said some school workers had died after being exposed to asbestos fibres.

“Children bang walls… people get covered in dust and they don’t know what it is,” he said.

“Mesothelioma is a death sentence… we need to find out where the asbestos is, and more importantly, what state it’s in.”

Payne called for the the removal of asbestos in schools to be “escalated urgently”.

“We need a phased programme and we must rid our public buildings of this deadly product as quickly as possible… it will cost a lot of money, but how many lives have got to be lost?”

In Conwy asbestos has been confirmed in 35 schools, and is suspected in 13 others. In total, there could be up to 1,053 ACMs present in the county’s schools. Following the incident in the county earlier this year, council officials called for more than £100,000 for enhanced surveys, after finding some asbestos surveys were 20 years old. In response to questions from BBC Wales, Conwy council said an external contractor had carried out new surveys of asbestos this year, and it was now assured current surveys were “accurate”.

In Monmouthshire surveys carried out in 2014 show ACMs identified in toilets, classroom floor tiles, and staffroom ceilings. However the council said it had “no knowledge of the discovery of any new asbestos” and no incidents had been reported.

In Powys, asbestos was found under the floor boards of a primary school after flooding last year, and at a high school during the refurbishment of changing rooms. In Newport a high school boiler room was sealed following an incident in April 2021.

The picture across Wales varies, but with many school buildings dating back before the 1990s, the presence of asbestos is thought to be widespread. Many councils said they did not know how much it might cost to remove asbestos from all schools, with work instead being carried out as required.

  • In Neath Port Talbot, 61 schools have confirmed asbestos, the council said it had a “rigorous regime” of annual inspections to ensure no materials had deteriorated
  • Swansea council said of its 97 schools, it was confident six new builds did not contain asbestos. It said ACMS were inspected and removed if damage was found
  • In Newport, asbestos has been found in 66 schools, with many surveys carried out as recently as this year
  • On Anglesey, 37 schools have asbestos, with surveys updated annually
  • Flintshire council said 11 secondary, 59 primary and four special education buildings – all built before 1990 – had asbestos, with an annual rolling programme of re-inspections
  • In Blaenau Gwent 18 schools have ACMS. The council said all schools were due to be re-inspected in 2021, with surveys carried out as recently as 2019
  • In Cardiff, surveys show 110 schools have presumed asbestos due to their age, surveys vary with one not carried out since 2011, while others done this year
  • In Bridgend county, 51 school sites have presumed or confirmed ACMs, with no new cases found during yearly re-inspections
  • In Merthyr Tydfil, 22 schools have confirmed asbestos, with 1,435 ACMs found, however the council said no new cases were found when new surveys were carried out in the last year
  • In Ceredigion 40 schools have ACMS, with the council saying all schools were re-surveyed in 2011-12 with higher risk ACMs inspected every six months
  • In Powys, 73 schools have ACMs, with annual re-inspection and asbestos removed when it cannot be managed or as part of refurbishment or demolition works
  • In Wrexham, 50 schools have ACMS, with re-inspections being carried out, and asbestos removed as required
  • In Denbighshire, 42 schools have ACMs, however the council said all high risk items had been removed from accessible areas
  • In Pembrokeshire 48 schools have ACMS, with five more built before 2000 which may have it present. There are plans for a number of schools to have it removed

The Welsh Local Government Association said councils were working to understand the scale of the issue and working with partners to “eliminate any risks as quickly as possible”.

The Welsh government said it was working to support good practice in asbestos management at schools and colleges.

“We also provide guidance to local authorities to help them fulfil their responsibilities of managing, monitoring and, if necessary, removing asbestos from their buildings,” a spokeswoman said.

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