A new report suggests that teaching is a surprisingly dangerous — and, in some cases, even deadly — profession in Great Britain.
That is because more than 86 percent of the country’s 24,000 schools were built with products that contain asbestos — the primary cause of malignant mesothelioma.
As these schools age, there is an increasing likelihood that some of that asbestos will turn into dust and that teachers, staffers, and even students may be inadvertently exposed to it.
Asbestos in Schools
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was once routinely used to add strength and fire-resistance to everything from concrete to floor and ceiling tiles, roof shingles, wallboard, and insulation.
It has also been definitively linked to lung cancer, asbestosis, pleural plaques, and two forms of malignant mesothelioma — the lung-related pleural mesothelioma and peritoneal mesothelioma which effects the abdomen. Mesothelioma is an aggressive disease that is notoriously unresponsive to standard cancer treatments.
The UK banned asbestos in 1999 but continues to have one of the highest per capita rates of malignant mesothelioma in the world due to its heavy use of the mineral in the first half of the 20th century.
Although this rare cancer is usually associated with occupations like construction, mining, firefighting, electrical work, or plumbing, new figures from Britain’s Health and Safety Executive show that thousands of teachers are at higher risk than they know.
Mesothelioma Risk to Teachers
Figures released last week by the HSE show that deaths from asbestos-related lung diseases like mesothelioma among teachers and school staff rose by a third between 2015 and 2016 and are still rising.
According to Britain’s National Education Union, more than 200 British teachers have died of malignant mesothelioma since 2001. Even something as simple as putting a tack into a wall where asbestos insulation is present can release deadly fibers into the classroom, putting both teachers and students at risk.
The US EPA has said that no amount of asbestos exposure is safe and that children may even face a higher lifetime risk of mesothelioma because they have more life-years in which to develop the cancer.
The Department of Education says British schools already comply with strict legal rules about the containment of asbestos, but advocacy groups are calling for the removal of all asbestos in school buildings to reduce the risk of mesothelioma to students and teachers.
Mesothelioma Risk Not Confined to British Schools
Unfortunately, Britain is not the only country grappling with the problem of asbestos in its schools.
Almost half of all US schools were built between 1950 and 1969 when asbestos use was at its peak. As long as this asbestos is fully contained and in good condition, the mesothelioma risk to students and teachers is believed to be low.
But aging asbestos is more likely to turn into dust and asbestos dust causes mesothelioma. The EPA requires schools to maintain an asbestos management plan and to make that plan available to parents and staff.
At present, there is no plan to remove asbestos from American schools.
Asbestos and School Buildings, EPA website, Accessed September 3, 2018
Asbestos in School: Is it a danger?, September 2, 2018, BBC News
Asbestos EduFacts, National Education Union, Accessed September 3, 2018