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Asbestos In Schools: What Parents Need To Know

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The Australian construction industry was once one of the world's largest consumers of asbestos. In the 1960s, builders clad 25 percent of new homes in asbestos cement, and many schools and commercial premises featured asbestos extensively. While builders no longer use the material, many buildings across Australia still present an asbestos hazard. Find out how likely it is that your child will encounter asbestos at school, and learn more about the safety precautions you can expect the building owners to take.

The threat asbestos poses

Although builders no longer use asbestos during construction, hundreds of Australians die every year due to asbestos-related illnesses. Asbestos use in Australian peaked in the 1970s, but any building constructed before the 1980s is still likely to have the material somewhere. The government finally banned asbestos products in December 2003, but the law does not insist that property owners remove any remaining asbestos-containing materials.

Asbestos exposure can cause several life-threatening illnesses, including asbestosis, lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma. Unfortunately, it's normally impossible to detect these problems until the disease has progressed, at which stage treatment is often ineffective. Undisturbed asbestos does not normally present a hazard, but damaged or worn asbestos-containing materials can release airborne fibres that can quickly find their way into your body.

There is no 'safe' level of asbestos exposure. Studies show that harmful effects can occur after any level of exposure to the material. As such, schools must take all possible precautions to deal with asbestos.

The scale of the issue

In Victoria, one group claims that 1,200 of the state's 1,539 schools contain asbestos. You're likely to find asbestos in several places in school buildings. Builders used the material in roof tiles, to cover walls, to insulate buildings and to cover floors. Where these areas remain undisturbed, it's unlikely that your children would come into contact with the material, but all schools face a lot of pressure from normal wear and tear that could release harmful fibres.

Asbestos removal is a complex job that only a licensed specialist can undertake, and many schools simply lack the budget to demolish and replace contaminated buildings. That aside, if the school does not remove the material, the owners must make sure that other precautions are in place.

School policies

As a parent, you can ask your child's school about the risk of asbestos exposure. Some states have progressed further than others. For example, following the Gaskin Report in 2010, Queensland schools must now have a detailed asbestos management plan in place. No similar strategy yet exists in Victoria, but there is increasing demand to roll out similar measures across Australia. Nonetheless, in the meantime, Victorian schools now have to display asbestos warning signs.

Parents in New South Wales can check the details of their children's school online through the state's asbestos register. For each affected school, parents can look at the asbestos management plan and a full register of exactly where you can find asbestos throughout the premises. Where the scale of the issue necessitates it, schools must also have a site specific management plan.

It's important to note that many of the issues occur in parts of the school that you may not immediately see as high risk.  For example, the site management plan for Dapto High School identifies four key asbestos zones, one of which is a grassed area, while another is garden bed near the school's sports court.

The problem with contaminated soil

Many schools face a serious problem with contaminated grounds and soil. In some cases, construction workers used broken fibro asbestos sheeting as a form of landfill in school ovals and playgrounds. Despite repeated attempts to clean up these sites, regular checks continue to find harmful fibres in the ground or on the surface. 

One government expert warned that a method known as 'chicken picking' is part of the problem. This method can save the school money and involves a team of people in protective gear walking across the area to find, collect and bag any asbestos fragments they find. The 'chicken picking' method generally only deals with part of the problem and more fragments are likely to surface over time.

It's important to make sure your children understand why they must not ignore any safety notices around the school. In some cases, these areas can seem exciting to a young, inquisitive mind, and it's not always immediately obvious where the risks lie. While schools must take relevant safety measures, parents must counsel children away from dangerous behaviour. Many schools use safety awareness sessions to help children understand the issue.

Take time to find out about asbestos issues at your child's school. It's important to challenge school managers about their control plans because pressure from parents can influence speedier, more thorough asbestos removal plans. For more information, contact a company like Asbestos Extraction & Containment.