A specialist industrial disease lawyer has said that the closure of a Welsh high school after ten times more than acceptable levels of asbestos were found comes as no surprise, adding that the hidden danger of asbestos in our schools has been known for years.
Bridget Collier, head of the Industrial Disease team at Fentons Personal Injury Solicitors LLP and a specialist in asbestos claims, said that the shock closure of the 900-strong Cwmcarn High School was potentially just the tip of the iceberg.
"The Cwmcarn case does not come as any great surprise, as we have known for years that asbestos was widely used in schools, typically for fireproofing and insulation," said Bridget. "But the dangerously high levels of asbestos found in that particular school have thrust it under the spotlight."
Reports over the last few weeks have detailed how workmen discovered airborne asbestos fibres that were ten times acceptable levels in the main block, leading to Cwmcarn High School being closed suddenly last month. Now a further specialist report has described the levels of asbestos in the school as posing 'potential serious risk to health', advising that it should be demolished.
"Since the closure we have received numerous calls from former pupils and staff at the school, as well as those from many others, who suspect they may have been exposed to asbestos," said Bridget. "It is believed that as many as 70% of schools built before 2000 will have asbestos in them, and that wherever maintenance, repair or new construction has taken place, there is potentially some risk that needs to be managed.
"In this case, the specialist asbestos management company's report suggests that ceiling tiles being disturbed by draughts, repairs to the electrical circuit and even pupils scraping chairs and tables in classrooms may have caused damage to asbestos boards," said Bridget. "It also said that asbestos in the roof void may have been blown around the building by the heating system."
Following the school's closure, pupils are now being educated at Coleg Gwent's Ebbw Vale campus 12 miles away, and will remain there for the rest of the school year.
"Whilst asbestos is a truly horrible material, and this latest incident has served to again highlight the danger of asbestos in schools, it should also be noted that asbestos that is still in good condition and unlikely to be damaged or disturbed does not pose any immediate significant health risks, as long as it is properly managed," said Bridget.
"Certainly most teachers and pupils are unlikely to be at risk in the course of their normal day-to-day activities," she said. "Whilst we are aware of some cases involving teachers who have developed asbestos-related illnesses after being exposed, those most at risk are tradespeople and contractors brought in to do maintenance or repair work who are more likely disturb asbestos-containing materials. We deal with a number of cases every year where workers - including builders, joiners, plumbers and electricians - have developed an asbestos-related disease because of the work they did in school buildings many years ago.
"It can take between 15 and 60 years after being exposed to asbestos before any related disease becomes apparent," said Bridget. "Many people who are diagnosed often came into contact with asbestos several years ago and didn't even realise. It is only when the symptoms begin to take hold that they recognise the devastating effect working with asbestos has had on them."
Bridget, who for many years has seen first-hand the impact asbestos-related illness has on its victims, said asbestos fibres are invisible to the naked eye. "When inhaled, these tiny indestructible fibres lodge inside the body and can remain latent without symptoms for many years before causing a number of cancers, including mesothelioma," she said.
Bridget said the most common places asbestos can be found in schools include the 'lagging' used as insulation on pipes and boilers; the sprayed-on asbestos used for insulation, fire protection and partitioning; insulation boards; some ceiling tiles; floor tiles; roofing and guttering; and textured coatings.
"There is a common misconception that asbestos is a thing of the past," added Bridget, "but asbestos was used in thousands of buildings throughout the twentieth century," she said. "Astonishingly, asbestos was still being used in some cement products up until as recently as 1999.
"The idea that the prevalence of asbestos in schools has suddenly been 'exposed' by the Cwmcarn issue is simply not correct," she said. "As the number of calls we receive from people who develop asbestos-related illnesses each year goes to attest, the unfortunate truth is that asbestos has been around for a long time and continues to claim far too many victims."
How can Fentons Solicitors help?
Fentons has a specialist department experienced in handling claims for victims of industrial diseases including asbestos-related conditions.
If you think that you have a case or require further information contact Fentons on 0800 0191 297 or fill in the online claims questionnaire.