A leading cancer expert says a campaign to get asbestos removed from all schools in the UK is unnecessary and could cause more deaths.
Trade unions want the government to spend billions of pounds to take asbestos out of schools, echoing a 2015 report by MPs calling for the removal of asbestos from every workplace.
But Professor Julian Peto, Britain’s leading expert on asbestos cancers, has told Sky News that much of the most dangerous asbestos has already been removed and trying to take out the remainder is not advisable because it would release more fibres.
“It isn’t clear to me that the exposures are high enough,” he said.
“And in particular it isn’t clear to me that to do something about it wouldn’t increase the risk.”
Asbestos was used for insulation and fire protection but was banned in 1999 because it can cause a range of diseases decades after being breathed in, including mesothelioma – a fatal lung cancer.
Professor Peto, Cancer Research UK Chair of Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Institute of Cancer Research, says the risk of dying from mesothelioma depends on when you were born and whether you worked indoors or outdoors.
Based on analysis of lung tissue samples, Prof Peto says total environmental exposure to asbestos fibres in the UK has fallen at least a hundred fold since the 1950s, when it was so high he expects it will kill one in a hundred men in the UK born between 1938 and 1947.
Retired teachers are believed to be dying of the disease at a rate around five times higher than their contemporaries who worked outdoors.
He estimates children today face a risk from asbestos 10 times lower than it was 50 years ago, meaning 20 to 30 children will breathe in asbestos fibres this year which will kill them in old age.
MPs on the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health have called for the accelerated removal of all asbestos from every workplace in Britain.
Trade unions representing school workers have formed a joint union asbestos committee which is calling on the government to fund a phased removal of all asbestos from schools.
Chairman John McClean questions Prof Peto’s findings, asking: “There’s no central database of where asbestos is and what condition it’s in, so he’s making a presumption based on what?”
The Health and Safety Executive says the vast majority of schools in England are complying with laws requiring them to remove asbestos at risk of being damaged and they are managing the remainder in situ.