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Should You Be Panicking About Asbestos at your Kid’s School?

Is asbestos a risk in NZ schools? While the answer is yes, there should be no reason to panic.

In August 2022, authorities discovered asbestos in the soil of the grounds of an Auckland primary school. Soil testing found lead, arsenic, mercury, and asbestos in old buried building materials during their 10 year plan.

They placed orange safety mesh around the area. But now, in mid 2023, the mesh has fallen over in some places, there were no imminent plans of asbestos decontamination, and kids were playing in the area.

Is it time for parents to panic? Can we see this replicated across the country, or is this a one-off?

Why is Asbestos a Risk in NZ Schools?

During the time asbestos was in use, NZ built a large number of schools. Many people widely used it as a cheap, hardwearing building material with many uses, along with insulation and fire retardant properties.

Think of those large vinyl linoleum tiles, the adhesive used to stick vinyl down, wall cladding, and roofing; it was everywhere. The Education Ministry is aware of this risk and has a plan for schools to handle it.

Learn about asbestos in our article. We discuss surveys, reviews, and actions taken to address its historical use.

What’s The Problem for NZ Schools?

Asbestos can cause a number of diseases. Mesothelioma, asbestosis, cancers that originate (mainly) in the lungs. If we look overseas to the UK, they have a similar set of circumstances.

It’s been theorised that asbestos in schools has contributed to the deaths of 10,000 teachers and pupils between 1980 and 2017. Up to 21,500 schools in the UK still have asbestos, with up to 24,000 buildings that could be starting to deteriorate.

Those figures are hard to prove due to absence of hard data and no recognition of the origins of asbestos. But, there are an increasing number of anecdotal accounts that show there is a health risk.

Generally, mesothelioma is a disease older men get; it’s a disease that those working in heavy industries get. However, more women in their 40s to 60s are getting mesothelioma and asbestosis due to asbestos in schools.

Explore the lasting impact of asbestos-related illnesses, their prognosis, and potential outcomes in our recent blog post.

One teacher recalled hanging children’s clothes to dry on asbestos lagging in the school boiler room. A school cleaner, told to sweep and dust boiler rooms and over pipes every school holiday. They were there, asbestos was there, and now they are sick.

While it sounds very scary, the truth could be more benign. This is because the harm only results from ‘friable’ asbestos (in a powder form or able to be crumbled) and airborne. So as long as the materials remain intact and in situ, they are fine. In the case of the Auckland school, as long as the debris remain underground, they are safe where they are.

The problem is, children. Children without fully developed frontal lobes may unknowingly expose themselves to asbestos fibres by digging holes in the ground. School buildings are subject to a lot of wear and tear, and this is the risk.

What are NZ Schools Doing About Asbestos?

The NZ Ministry of Education require schools to manage this themselves. Managing asbestos includes testing and identifying all asbestos and managing the risk of exposure to it. Worksafe supports this and requires the same set of processes for workplaces. For more information about asbestos testing, be sure to read our blog here.

While this is good, is it enough? Are we facing the same problems the UK is? To simplify the text, we can say: Monitoring asbestos is important, but it’s hard to find and track all of it. So, there should be a plan to remove it gradually, considering degradation and vandalism.

This would also be a great time to double glaze and insulate classrooms that do not meet current housing standards.

Qualified and highly trained professionals need to carry out asbestos removal in NZ, which creates a financial burden for schools. In some cases, it remains perfectly enclosed and safe in its location.

But the fact remains that asbestos is a dangerous mineral, it is present in our schools, and we can’t find every piece of it. Furthermore, a five year old child exposed to asbestos has a five times greater chance of developing mesothelioma as an adult compared to an individual exposed at 30 years old.

What Do You, as a Parent, Need to Do?

If you are worried about asbestos in your local school, you can approach the school and ask about it. The Board of Trustees holds the primary duty of care for ensuring the safety of all the children at school. 

They can face penalties if they know of a risk and do nothing about it.

If this yields no response, Worksafe or the Ministry of Education are your next stop. Read more about asbestos requirements for schools here and here, including the legal obligations for asbestos management in NZ.

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