Problems caused by the presence of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) in school buildings have been widely reported in recent weeks.
For example, national news reports revealed that councils in England have paid out at least £10m in compensation to people who developed illnesses because of asbestos in schools, with 32 councils settling claims from former teachers, school staff or pupils in the last decade.
At the same time, Kent County Council confirmed the presence of asbestos containing materials in 344 schools at all levels from infant and special schools to sixth forms and pupil referral units. On a similar theme Liverpool City Council said that 51 out of 87 schools in the area had been identified as potentially having asbestos present in their buildings.
Given the widespread use of asbestos in building materials and products until it was banned in late 1999, its presence in many different types and parts of school premises should not come as a surprise. In fact it has been estimated that more than 75% schools in the UK have some buildings which contain asbestos containing materials (ACMs).
However, there are strict HSE and legal duties on schools aimed at reducing the risks to health that asbestos poses and there should no longer be any excuse for anyone being exposed to potentially dangerous levels of airborne asbestos fibres.
In particular, dutyholders (those with a responsibility for the maintenance and/or repair of premises) are required to assess and manage the risks from asbestos to employees and others, and must ensure that anyone who is likely to work on, or disturb, asbestos is provided with information about its location and condition.
Even though the use of asbestos has been banned since 1999, and huge amounts have already been removed from school buildings, there are still many situations where the decision has been made to leave it in situ and manage its presence.
Asbestos that is in good condition and unlikely to be damaged or disturbed is not a significant risk to health as long as it is properly managed. Only when ACMs are disturbed or damaged is the risk of exposure increased through the release of airborne fibres.
It follows that the most common way that ACMs in schools might be disturbed is during maintenance, repair or other building works. Maintenance, repair or other building work in schools can release high levels of asbestos fibres, and if carried out without rigorous controls can expose the people carrying out the work and the occupants.
Rigorous systems of asbestos management are also needed to prevent school staff and pupils disturbing ACMs that are accessible to them. Some classroom activities such as attaching work to walls or the movement of furniture against walls, may inadvertently cause damage to building materials and so increase the potential health risks associated with the release of fibres.
The condition of all school building materials therefore requires careful monitoring and management at all times. Regular inspections and checks by the duty holder of the condition of ACMs are essential and this should include details of any precautionary or safeguarding measures that are needed.
Specifically, an asbestos register and management plan is required that incorporates all relevant information about the existence and location of any known or presumed asbestos-containing materials on school sites. The plan also needs to be updated regularly and to be made available to anyone visiting or working on a school site.
Most teachers and school staff are not directly involved in managing the buildings or in carrying out repair or maintenance work. However, they will need to know the location of any ACMs and how they can be damaged or disturbed and all staff must report damage or deterioration of school fixtures or fittings that could lead to the release of asbestos fibres.
Where there is the possibility of the release of asbestos fibres into the environment, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides guidance on air sampling to ensure worker protection - most typically after building repairs or asbestos removal work.
This process is designed to be used as part of a rigorous system to provide reassurance that a work environment has been properly cleaned. The recommended standard analysis of samples gathered from air monitoring provides quick results but it does not differentiate between asbestos fibres and other sorts of fibres that may be present such as clothing fibres.
This issue is particularly important in school premises where many different types of airborne fibres can be present but where most of them are also likely to originate from clothing or other potential sources (including organic fibres or so called MMMF/man-made mineral fibres) rather than ACMs.
In such circumstances, the analysis of air filter samples using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) can be undertaken in much greater detail than is possible with standard techniques. 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.
In particular, SEM enables asbestos in air to be quantified to very low levels, 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 (PCOM). SEM can also distinguish between different asbestos fibre types using energy dispersive x-ray analysis (EDXA).
As a result, SEM is invaluable for the detailed sampling of ambient or indoor air where the anticipated fibre levels are low or for periodic monitoring of areas to check the potential cumulative exposure on teachers, pupils and those using the premises.
In this respect, with an emphasis on preventing exposure to asbestos fibres, the detailed forensic records and diagnostic testing provided by SEM analysis not only represents good safety management practice but can also provide proof of prevailing schoolroom conditions at any particular time.
In this way, with schools, colleges and local authorities increasingly facing health-related compensation claims, SEM can provide the evidence needed to demonstrate that buildings containing asbestos SEM can provide the evidence needed to demonstrate that buildings containing asbestos are being well maintained and that those present are not been exposed to dangerous levels of airborne fibres.