Barnet schools still contain asbestos

Buildings at 28 schools in the London Borough of Barnet still contain asbestos, according to data released under the Freedom of Information Act show.

The potentially deadly material, which was widely used in construction until it was banned in 1999, is not considered harmful when in large pieces and undamaged, but can lead to an incurable type of cancer if it is disturbed and the fibres are inhaled.

Barnet Council  says it has a management plan and safety measures in place at all of its schools in the borough that are affected by asbestos.

Concerns over the safety of school buildings have been mounting since the UK government revealed more than 170 schools around the country contain reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) – a lightweight form of concrete used from the 1950s to the mid-1990s that is at risk of collapse after its 30-year lifespan.

Teaching unions have urged the government to remove asbestos from school buildings amid concerns that up to 10,000 former staff and pupils may have died from cancer caused by the material.

According to government figures published in 2019, the substance is still present in four out of five schools in England.

All three types of asbestos are known as class one carcinogens, although blue and brown asbestos – which have been banned since 1985 – are the most dangerous. White asbestos was banned in 1999.

Before it was banned the substance was used in a wide range of construction materials, including insulation, boilers and pipes.

When asbestos-containing materials are intact, they pose little risk to health. But if they are damaged, fibres may be released and inhaled or swallowed.

Breathing in high concentrations of asbestos for long periods can lead to a condition called asbestosis – which can take decades to develop – and this in turn leads to an increased risk of cancer. Asbestos causes mesothelioma – a cancer of the protective tissue covering the lungs or the abdomen – as well as cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary. Breathing in lower concentrations of asbestos can cause other lung problems.

A report produced by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 former staff and pupils died from mesothelioma between 1980 and 2017 because they were exposed to amosite (brown) asbestos in their schools between the 1960s and 1980s.

The committee has called on the government to fund the phased removal of all asbestos in educational establishments by 2028.

Earlier this month, a coalition of trade unions called for the removal of asbestos from all public buildings within the next 40 years.

A spokesperson for Barnet Council said: “We are aware of the presence of asbestos in some Barnet schools and have a management plan and safety measures in place.”

“Whenever asbestos is found, disturbed or damaged on Barnet Council school premises, a council asbestos co-ordinator supports and advises on risk mitigation steps to ensure the safety of staff and pupils.”