SCOTLAND’S crumbling school estate risks infecting pupils with illnesses linked to asbestos exposure, experts have warned, amid fears that swathes of public buildings could be riddled with the deadly material.
Most public buildings constructed before the year 2000 are believed to contain large amounts of the substance and its estimated that this type of exposure claims hundreds of Scottish lives each year with numbers expected to rise.
The true scale of the problem in Scotland is not yet known but doctors, health and safety experts and teacher groups have united to call for action after a study in England showed asbestos was present in 75 per cent of schools in England.
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On Friday, an event to discuss the problem at the Glasgow Science Centre organised by asbestos support groups will be told that the presence of asbestos in school buildings "is an urgent public health threat in Scotland".
One expert says Scotland currently has the highest global incidence of mesothelioma, the cancer associated with exposure to asbestos, for which there is no known cure.
Dr Kevin Blyth who leads Scotland’s only mesothelioma clinical team and is an a associate professor at the University of Glasgow said there were 175 cases diagnosed in 2014 with the incidence "particularly high in the west", a legacy of previous use of asbestos in shipbuilding and other industries.
He warned: "However, asbestos is also incorporated into thousands of Scotland’s buildings like office buildings and schools and cases related to environmental exposure are increasing."
Robin Howie, an asbestos risk specialist said: “This is an issue that has concerned me for decades. Hundreds of public buildings have a significant asbestos content. Routine maintenance and general dilapidation of those buildings causes a release of asbestos fibres into the air.
"Unless stringent asbestos fibre limits are introduced and enforced in our schools and public buildings then our children will continue to be exposed to an unacceptable level of risk. The threat cannot be overstated."
Iain Naylor, husband of Sandra who died three years ago at the age of 52, after developing mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos dust when she was a pupil at a North Lanarkshire school has called for action.
"I lost my wife because she was a pupil in a school full of asbestos. How could that happen? How many others have been affected?
"I want to make a direct plea to all candidates and parties across the country to begin to address this. Meet with campaigners and victims because the safety of our kids and working people could not be any more important.”
Iain’s call was backed by Annette Smith chairperson of Scotland’s biggest asbestos charity, Clydeside Action on Asbestos, which is co-hosting Friday's science centre event.
He said: "This is one of the biggest health challenges facing our country in the coming years and we can’t win this fight without the backing of our councillors. I would say to all political parties please look at this issue as a matter of priority, meet with us and the families and let’s make sure that all public buildings whether its schools, hospitals or local authority buildings are safe for everyone.”
Laura Blane a partner with Thompsons Solicitors the law firm which represents most of Scotland’s asbestos victims said: "It is no exaggeration to say that this is an enormous ticking time bomb and I am seeing increasing numbers of cases.
"It’s a problem that must be tackled with the upmost urgency. We need to know that our workplaces and are schools are safe for generations to come.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We take the issue of the handling of asbestos within public buildings very seriously. We are clear with local authorities our expectation that they follow Health and Safety Executive recommendations for managing asbestos.
“In addition, Minister for Local Government Kevin Stewart has recently written to all local authorities following the recent Cole Report on schools to highlight its findings and underline their obligations in relation to verifying and enforcing building regulations, technical standards and the inspection processes which are in place to protect the public.”
A spokesman for HSE said: "A large number of schools and other public buildings contain asbestos, often in the fabric of the building. Its presence alone should not cause concern provided if it is managed properly.
"Schools have clear legal duties to manage asbestos-containing materials. Where HSE has undertaken inspections of schools it has found that most have good standards for managing asbestos in their buildings.
"Teachers and pupils are not likely to be at risk in the course of their normal activities. Those most likely to be exposed to asbestos are tradesmen such as electricians, plumbers, joiners, and potentially school caretakers, who could disturb it through drilling and sawing."