HUNDREDS of pupils missed out on schooling last week following the abrupt closure of Cwmcarn High School over fears staff and pupils may have been exposed to asbestos fibres. NATALIE CROCKETT looks at the scale of the problem across Gwent schools.
Most of Gwent’s 265 schools contain asbestos, the Argus can reveal. That includes 53 in Newport, at least 30 in the Caerphilly county borough, 34 in Torfaen, 28 in Blaenau Gwent and 31 in Monmouthshire.
On October 12 Caerphilly council shut the 937-pupil Cwmcarn High School following the outcome of a structural report which revealed the “continued risk of exposure to asbestos fibres”.
Its closure sparked major concerns about the presence of asbestos in school buildings and saw Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews call on local authorities to provide reports on the levels of the substance in all schools.
Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams went one step further and called on the Welsh Government to carry out a national audit of the asbestos in schools, saying people in Wales had a right to know if they were a danger.
Such calls were welcomed by teachers’ union NASUWT, which said ministers should implement a programme for the safe removal of asbestos over a period of time starting with the schools most at risk.
National Union of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) Wales organiser Rex Phillips said: “The only way to make our schools safe is to remove asbestos from them but we recognise the cost implications this raises and that this cannot be done overnight.”
Asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK totalling around 4,500 a year.
Simon Ellis, partner at Hugh James solicitors in Cardiff, said this could rise in years to come because many workers, like teachers, were not aware they had been exposed to the potentially lethal substance.
He welcomed proposals for a national asbestos register and said people should always be made aware of where asbestos is present.
But more importantly, he said, anywhere containing asbestos should be regularly assessed and monitored to prevent it becoming harmful.
He said: “I’m increasingly concerned at the growing incidence of this type of situation, especially in public buildings such as schools. I would call on local authorities to be more vigilant in identifying asbestos in schools and taking the appropriate steps to protect the health of the pupils and staff.
“Asbestos related illnesses such as mesothelioma can take up to 40 years to develop, meaning the full extent of asbestos related illnesses in school workers and pupils is not yet known.
“At present I represent a number of former school workers whose lives have been affected by asbestos exposure. It’s clear that a national focus must be put on the dangers being faced by not only our teachers but pupils as well.”
All Gwent councils contacted said their schools had asbestos management plans in place and surveys were carried out as required by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.
Newport said there were periodic re-inspections of asbestos containing materials (ACM) in schools as well as checks every term by premises managers and health and safety audits.
A spokeswoman said removal or remediation action is taken if there is deemed to be a high risk, for instance if there is damage, or as part of planned refurbishment work. All procedures and any necessary work is always carried out in line with the 2012 regulations, she said.
Monmouthshire council said affected buildings were inspected at least once every six months for damage or deterioration.
Any maintenance work carried out by contractors or council staff is subject to a permission to work system, where the person involved has to sign that they have seen the asbestos register and they have left the area in good condition after completion of work.
A spokesman said the authority had carried out asbestos removal work whenever any refurbishment or alterations take place in the schools and any ACMs in the area are scheduled for removal under fully controlled conditions, normally when the school is unoccupied.
A Blaenau Gwent council spokeswoman said ACMs had been removed to permit refurbishment, or where they have become damaged, or to permit maintenance work. All remaining asbestos containing materials are robustly monitored and managed by the council’s technical services.
Caerphilly council said asbestos surveys had been carried out in all schools since 2003.
It said standards for surveys changed in 2006 and 2012, which resulted in a number of more detailed surveys or premises being required highlighting a more comprehensive pictures of asbestos at schools.
Decision is set to be made tonight on what will happen next for pupils
CAERPHILLY council was advised by a specialist contractor to look at demolishing the affected buildings at Cwmcarn High School due to the implicated costs of continuing to operate without further risk of exposure to the substance. Removing the “brown” asbestos, which is the most dangerous form, could cost millions of pounds, the council said.
The majority of asbestos at Cwmcarn High School is sealed and in a good condition but some debris was discovered in voids and some asbestos was unsealed or damaged. Both of these conditions give rise to the potential for asbestos fibre release, which is harmful when breathed in. The authority admitted the school had been exposed to asbestos fibres, but said the risk from exposure to staff and pupils was “low albeit slightly elevated.”
Around 112 sixth form pupils returned to school on Friday, Year 11s went back yesterday and Year 10s were set to attend lessons again today.
They will report to the standalone performing arts block, which is asbestos free.
Caerphilly councillors will meet tonight to discuss the issue and make a decision on what will happen for the remainder of the academic year. This could include some pupils being sent to other schools. Teachers were praised for using social networking site Twitter and email to get work to students while the school was closed.
More than 20 of teachers sent out work including past papers for revision.
AROUND 4,500 people a year die from asbestos related illnesses in the UK.
The substance was used extensively as a building material in the UK the 1950s through to the mid 1980s and was a popular choice for fireproofing and insulation.
Any building built before 2000 can contain asbestos.
Asbestos in good condition is usually safe unless its fibres become airborne, which happens when materials are damaged, and it is breathed in.
There are four asbestos-related diseases – some of which are fatal. These are: mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis and diffuse pleural thickening. They do not develop immediately, but later in life and can take between 20 and 40 years to show up.