My former colleague, Val Cane, is fully justified in seeking to raise awareness about the risks posed by asbestos but rather less justified in raising concern about the aftermath of the fire at Tideway School.
As she states, extensive precautions were taken to contain any risk and this was backed up by thorough testing immediately after the fire and several times a day, every day, until the cleaning was completed – a period exceeding a year. Those tests did not support the concerns she mentioned.
On the broader picture, removal of all asbestos would be the ideal solution and certainly should be a long-term aim. However, there is the more immediate need to ensure the safe management of asbestos in all buildings and – so far as schools are concerned – this has been a focus for Teacher Trades Union, particularly NASUWT, for over 25 years. In East Sussex there has been equal determination from the local authority and all schools have been surveyed and detailed registers completed. Much of the amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos) has been removed by specialists and the majority of what remains is chrysotile (white asbestos).
Some studies suggest that chrysotile is less dangerous than other types but no form of asbestos is safe and increased exposure to asbestos increases the risk to health.
That said; chrysotile is usually found in bonded materials such as insulation boards, wall and floor tiles, some paints and claddings and other building materials. 2006 legislation prohibits the use of all asbestos but allows existing bonded materials to remain in place provided the materials are in good condition.
Therefore, the two immediate issues are: 1) to ensure all registered materials are monitored and not subject to damage by breakage, abrasion or drilling and 2) to ensure that any intrusive maintenance is conducted with awareness and testing where necessary. The requirement for relevant training is also part of legislation and ultimately it is a responsibility of school Governors to ensure that appropriate procedures are in place and followed.
To return to an earlier point: asbestos is to be found in many buildings – including millions of homes – and awareness needs to extend to everyone with the realisation that asbestos may be found quite unexpectedly. For example, a common way of fixing screws and bolts in masonry in the 50s and 60s was to plug holes with dampened asbestos fibres to form a paste. Such asbestos is invisible, and probably unsuspected, until the fixing is undone or removed.
(Incredible as it may seem now, the asbestos was supplied as dry fibres in tins).
Consequently, without wishing to raise unnecessary alarm, I hope everyone will view their working environment, public buildings they use, and their homes, with a questioning approach and a level of caution.
Roy Bellingham. (Retired County Secretary NASUWT, Retired Teacher/Business Manager Tideway School)