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28 August 2008

How ministers ignored the ’time bomb’ in the classroom

Concerns about asbestos in schools were first voiced in the 1960s yet 13,000 schools today still con

By Ed Howker

Editor’s Note: Leigh Carlisle died on 27 August as the magazine was going to press.

Leigh Carlisle is 28. Doctors and lawyers have not yet established how she was exposed to asbestos or why she is dying of mesothelioma at such a young age. The aggressive cancer often takes 20 years or more to reveal itself after exposure.

They consider it possible that she was affected at school in Oldham and have placed a Freedom of Information request with the council there, hoping to determine whether there was asbestos in her classrooms.

They are waiting to discover if Leigh’s name will be added to around 200 school workers who are dead or dying of mesothelioma as a result of the widespread use of the mineral in school building projects during the second half of the 20th century. About 13,000 schools today contain asbestos.

As early as 1967, the Department of Education and Science was concerned about the dangers of asbestos in schools but bowed to pressure from the asbestos industry to continue using its products. Correspondence between the department and the industry illustrates just how much power the asbestos firms had. In July 1967, when the schools building programme was in full flow, the DES published a memorandum advertising the risk of mesothelioma posed by asbestos and urging local authorities to “reduce the use of all forms of asbestos by finding a substitute wherever possible”.

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One month later the department received a letter written jointly by directors of Cape Asbestos and Turner & Newall which stated: “We have seen this memorandum and have come to the conclusion that it is intended to cover the use of asbestos by students in laboratories.”

It went on to warn of the “enormous economic consequences” of interpreting the memorandum more widely. Under pressure from the Board of Trade, the DES relented, confirming that it would “define the scope of the memorandum” as suggested by the asbestos firms.

Today, 40 years on, the National Union of Teachers describes the issue of asbestos in schools as a “ticking time bomb”.