Schools may have been supplied dangerous equipment, potentially exposing students and staff to poisonous gas during science lessons, The Telegraph has reported
Secondary schools and colleges in the UK have been sent a letter from the Department for Education, ordering them to remove bunsen burner gauze mats as they are believed to contain asbestos, The Telegraph reports.
The banned products, used on top of bunsen burners, may have been in circulation since the 1970s; the two companies responsible have not been named.
In the letter the DfE said: “Remove current supplies from use until you have established whether the gauze used in your school or college have been provided from an asbestos-free source.”
It directed them to the website of school science advisory service CLEAPSS, where they should follow advice “with immediate effect”.
“We appreciate that following these steps may affect your school or college’s delivery of the science curriculum and science departments may need to reschedule practical science lessons until such time that they can secure a fresh supply of gauzes,” the letter says. “The safety of staff and students is of the utmost importance.”
Schools have been told to prevent “access to cupboards or drawers where gauzes are stored by sealing them securely with tape”.
Headteachers who did not know whether they had dangerous gauzes have been told to “respond as if at least some of them” were. The items must be disposed of as if they were hazardous waste.
Chris Keates, General Secretary teaching union NASUWT, has written to Damian Hinds, the schools minister, to demand the names of the two suppliers be made public to relieve the “anxiety and distress” of staff, pupils and parents. “It beggars belief that this situation has been allowed to happen for so long, possibly as far back as 1976,” she said.
“While it is to be welcomed that the Health and Safety Executive has highlighted this major hazard to the health of children and young people, and all those who work on school sites, it is unacceptable that the two suppliers involved have not been named.”
“There are serious questions to be asked and answered about this appalling situation, including why it has taken so long to identify that suppliers are using such hazardous materials and what action the government intends to take to support schools in the light of this revelation, including the costs that may be incurred as a result of the disposal of this material.”
The substance discovered in tests was tremolite asbestos, which makes up 20 to 30 per cent of the heat-resistant pad at the gauze’s centre.
Tremolite has needle-like fibres and is considered as toxic as chrysotile or white asbestos. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has ordered the companies to stop sending the products to schools.
Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause fatal illnesses including lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis with symptoms sometimes remaining undetected for 30 years.
HSE assured schools the risk was “extremely low.”
A DfE spokesman said: “Following advice from the Health and Safety Executive we have immediately written to all secondary schools and colleges advising them to take steps to remove and dispose of potentially hazardous mesh gauze used in science lessons.”
“We will continue to liaise with the HSE and CLEAPSS over this issue.”