University asbestos killer scandal

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Demonstrators in Earls Court fighting to stop the use of asbestos in building materials

ALMOST two-thirds of universities in England have ‘potentially harmful’ asbestos in their campus buildings, a survey of top-ranking English universities has claimed.

It also judged that a massive 86 per cent of universities responding to the survey ‘contain asbestos on their estates’, and that a total of 74 per cent are understood to have the potentially harmful building material ‘present in the fabric’ of their buildings.

So as the new academic year gets underway, students and staff are facing an asbestos risk ‘at a high number of top-ranking English universities’, its evidence indicates.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Stephensons Solicitors LLP, which was sent to 106 universities in England, has estimated on the above basis that as many as ‘78 higher education establishments’ may contain asbestos.

Universities reporting asbestos include Russell Group universities, such as University of Cambridge and University of Oxford, and all of the six red brick universities – University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of Leeds, University of Liverpool, University of Manchester and University of Sheffield.

So with freshers’ week in full swing, Stephensons’ personal injury team is calling on all universities to do more to provide students and staff with information on the deadly material if there is asbestos on campus or in student accommodation.

Kate Sweeney, a Partner in the Personal Injury team at Stephensons, said: ‘It’s not surprising due to the age of many of the country’s university buildings that an incredibly high number of universities have reported that they have asbestos present in the buildings on their estates.

‘As thousands of new students start uni and undergraduates return to their studies, we are calling on universities to better inform students and staff if there is asbestos present on campus and the measures being taken to manage it. A consistent and clear message needs to be added to websites, student newspapers and department notice boards.’

The findings follow an exposé by Stephensons in July, which found that 5,196 maintained primary schools are also understood to have the potentially deadly material in their buildings.

The law firm is continuing to campaign for information to be disclosed on the presence of asbestos in buildings used for education.

Asbestos was banned in 1999, but had been routinely used during construction in decades gone by. The material was commonly installed in schools, colleges, universities and other public buildings during the 1940s-1970s and is now often in a deteriorating state.

Asbestos fibres only become a risk to human health when they are released into the air and breathed in.

Damaged roofs, rotten windows and broken ceiling tiles in problem buildings can result in asbestos fibres being released into the air. If inhaled, the fibres can cause a range of life-threatening illnesses including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Liz Darlison, Head of Services at Mesothelioma UK, the national charity for the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma, added: ‘The prevalence of mesothelioma in the UK does not appear to be slowing down, and concern about the effect of low levels of exposure to asbestos is increasing.

‘As new academic years start for all students, the presence of asbestos in educational buildings – from schools, colleges to universities – is an issue we need to address as a national priority. Mesothelioma UK applaud Stephensons Solicitors for raising awareness of asbestos and the effects of exposure in universities.’

Kate added: ‘Asbestos is still very much a problem in the education sector from primary schools through to universities, and unfortunately the number of cases of asbestos-related diseases in people who have worked in the sector is increasing.

‘The potentially deadly material has been used in all types of buildings and is still present in many primary schools and universities due to aging educational buildings. Parents, students, academics, teachers and support staff have a right to know if asbestos is present and what measures are being taken to manage exposure.’

Mesothelioma is caused by airborne asbestos fibres being inhaled and getting into a person’s lungs. The fibres can lodge into the pleura (lining of the lungs) which causes inflammation and scarring. Over time, the damage affects the DNA of cells and can cause mesothelioma cancer. But that is often not diagnosed until many years later.

  • Unite the union is strongly backing a new campaign by Hazards magazine to force the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to halve the legally permissible exposure level to silica dust, which Unite estimates could save some 4,000 lives a year.

The campaign ‘Choked’ argues that the current legal limit of 0.1 mg/m3 should be at least halved to 0.05 mg/m3. The current UK limit of 0.1mg/m3 is double the legal limit in the USA and Australia. Many European countries also have a lower exposure level.

Over 600,000 workers in the UK are regularly exposed to silica at work which is created when cutting, grinding, drilling or polishing natural substances such as rocks and sand and is a major constituent in bricks, tiles and concrete and materials.

Unite national health and safety adviser Rob Miguel said: ‘It is time that the HSE re-examined the exposure limits to silica. The lives of thousands of workers can be saved if exposure levels are cut and the HSE properly enforces exposure levels.

‘The government’s slashing of the HSE funding over the last decade is making it extremely difficult for the HSE to properly police the health and safety of workers. It is vital that everyone supports Hazards campaign and puts pressure on the HSE to do the right thing and cut the maximum legal exposure level.’

Industries where workers are potentially exposed to silica dust include: mining, quarrying, foundries, potteries, ceramics, glass manufacturing and construction. In some of these sectors, like stonemasonry and construction, possibly half of workers may be exposed at or above the current deadly limit.

Inhaling silica over a long period can cause silicosis, a serious respiratory disease. It can also lead to other potentially fatal diseases such as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Last month, Unite launched an online silica register. The register is for members who have been exposed to silica. By recording the exposure, if a member then develops an industrial disease related to silica it will be easier to make a claim for compensation.

  • There is new scientific evidence from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, reports are claiming, that ‘exposure to mild steel welding fume can cause lung cancer and possibly kidney cancer in humans.’

In response, the Workplace Health Expert Committee has endorsed the reclassification of mild steel welding fume as a human carcinogen.

And the consequences of this are that: ‘With immediate effect, there is a strengthening of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s’) enforcement expectation for all welding fume, including mild steel welding, because general ventilation does not achieve the necessary control.’