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Schools & Asbestos – A Problem To Be Solved

September 20, 2018

Schools & Asbestos – A Problem To Be Solved

Once advertisers hailed Asbestos as ‘The Magic Mineral of the Middle Ages’. Hark back to a vintage asbestos advertisement, and you’ll see quotes like the following; “a magic mineral; fire-proof, rot-proof and practically indestructible” with encouragement to mix the wonder material with portland cement to create almost indestructible farm buildings resistant to ‘fire, weather and wear’.

‘It all seemed so good at the time’, is likely a phrase uttered countless times when demolition crews, project managers, labourers and architects years later when they encounter the ‘not so magic mineral’ in the plethora of ageing public buildings. Those built before the 1999 UK ban of the cancer-causing, fibrous mineral are today prevalent, particularly in public sector municipal buildings like libraries, hospitals, leisure centres and schools.

Deemed to be the answer to durability and fire-proofing issues it is unsurprising looking at the pre-1970 history of Asbestos that it became so prevalent in the school environment and a go-to in the construction of ‘tough’ buildings. Moreover, schools need to be tough; with buildings of various shapes, sizes and uses on-campus that take repeated use and abuse, day after day, year after year, pupil after pupil.

Due to the introduction of the outright ban on the use of Asbestos in 1999 in the UK our legacy of problem buildings runs to the turn of the century and is a significant issue to be managed out of our public building stock through refurbishment, recommissioning and rebuilding.

However, with news in the press this month of 14-year-old Devon teenager, Macie Greening, becoming one of the world’s youngest sufferers to be diagnosed with asbestos-related cancer, how soon is soon enough to rid of public buildings of their asbestos legacy and more importantly what strategies are in place to deal with the issue?

Macie is one of only nine children in the world currently suffering from mesothelioma, which starts in the tissue and is caused by inhaling or swallowing asbestos fibres.  Of the 500 sufferers diagnosed each year, nine children currently fighting the disease.

While pediatric mesothelioma accounts for less than 5 per cent of all diagnoses and remains extremely rare authorities in other countries are increasingly looking at strategies to significantly limit, intending to remove totally, any opportunity for contact between young people and Asbestos in the ageing school building stock. Unfortunately, the issue, in many cases, is that the use of Asbestos ironically only becomes apparent when the material is exposed, the stage at which it is prone to damage and is most harmful to those who have contact.

Undisputedly it won’t be an easy task, as the lambasting of the US The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the agency’s internal watchdog proved earlier this month when a year-long investigation exposed failures to protect children from the dangers of asbestos exposure in the nation’s public and private schools.

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