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Dealing with asbestos in schools

What's the best solution to asbestos: removal or reassurance air monitoring?

Posted by Hannah Vickers | September 05, 2017 | Security & safety

Most teachers and school staff are not directly involved in managing their buildings or in carrying out repair or maintenance work. However, they will need to know the location of any asbestos containing materials (ACMs) and how they could be damaged or disturbed.

Of course, the hazard is the presence of asbestos, but the risk to occupants is when asbestos fibres become airborne and can be inhaled. An asbestos survey identifies the hazard, but on its own rarely identifies the risk to an effective level; the key requirement is to target resources by proper assessment and effectively controlling any real risks present.

To completely eradicate the risk posed by damage to and deterioration of ACMs there have been calls for the complete removal of asbestos from all school buildings. While it is clearly vital that everyone continues to recognise the risks to health associated with asbestos fibres, full consideration needs to be given to the resources, practicalities and scale of work that would be required to meet these ambitions. For instance, the design of many older education buildings means that the only way to completely remove any asbestos present would be to almost completely dismantle parts of them or demolish the entire building.

Against this sort of measure, there are no projections on what the cost of this work would be to the UK economy or how any removal costs would compare to the costs of alternative forms of management and reassurance monitoring that are now available to duty holders.  

Although setting out a long-term strategy for the removal of asbestos from schools remains a legitimate objective, financial considerations and pressure on resources means it is not feasible to remove all asbestos materials in the short term

As a result, although setting out a long-term strategy for the removal of asbestos from schools remains a legitimate objective, financial considerations and pressure on resources means it is not feasible to remove all asbestos materials in the short term.

In the circumstances, there are now many arguments in favour of periodic monitoring of air samples in schools using modern analytical techniques rather than simply monitoring ambient air conditions after asbestos repairs or removal works have been completed. For example, there have been a number of reported cases where air sampling has identified situations where asbestos fibres were being released into classrooms and corridors. However, without regular monitoring it is impossible to tell for how many years this may have been taking place unnoticed.  

In such situations, the impact of any release of fibres from classroom cupboards, slamming doors, damage to walls and columns or from heaters might only be properly identified by periodic air sampling. To meet this need, reassurance air monitoring using powerful scanning electron microscopy (SEM) can more effectively measure occupational exposure concentrations for asbestos in workplace premises than other analysis techniques.

SEM enables asbestos in air to be quantified to very low levels, typically achieving lower limits of detection to 0.0005 fibres/ cm3 and below, compared to the 0.01 fibres/cm3 capability of standard phase contrast microscopy (PCM). SEM can also distinguish between different asbestos fibre types and other non-organic fibres using energy dispersive x-ray analysis (EDXA).

Current analysis using standard PCM has a limit of detection wholly unsuitable for risk assessment in an occupied environment and is only really valid for asbestos removal monitoring.

In such circumstances, SEM’s ability to more accurately determine whether asbestos fibres are present means it can better identify the level of any risk that might be present – and what remedial actions are required. As a result, asbestos risk measurements in specific school locations can be used to prioritise risk and target spending on abatement accordingly. 

This means that scarce maintenance resources can be properly allocated for the treatment and removal of the most dangerous ACMs in schools, with the continued management of any remaining asbestos until a phased programme of asbestos removal can be initiated.

In this way, reassurance air monitoring utilising modern analytical techniques can ensure the effectiveness of asbestos management plans and provide the reassurance that children and teachers are not being exposed to harmful fibre levels.

Lucion has produced a special white paper on asbestos in schools and reassurance monitoring using SEM.

The effective monitoring of asbestos in schools will be a key focus of this years’ Asbestos the Truth Conference, the UK’s largest asbestos safety management conference. It will take place on 8th November at the Hilton Deansgate Hotel in Manchester. 

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