An alarming number of schools in England face a crisis with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac), putting them at an added risk due to potential asbestos exposure.
Over 150 schools constructed using Raac are currently assessed as hazardous after surpassing their recommended 30-year lifespan. This has led to many institutions shutting down temporarily due to safety concerns. The predicament is particularly concerning as the use of Raac was prominent from the 1950s to the 1990s - a period that also witnessed rampant asbestos application in construction, before its eventual ban due to grave health risks.
This overlapping timeline indicates a possibility of asbestos becoming exposed during the concrete remediation process. Such exposure could prolong the remedial procedures, thus extending school closures by months.
Although asbestos usage was banned more than twenty years ago, it lingers in an estimated 300,000 non-domestic buildings across the UK. Interestingly, not all Raac-affected buildings are suspected to contain asbestos.
However, the Department for Education's 2019 data indicates the presence of asbestos in approximately 81% of English schools. This startling figure has driven campaigns and unions to sound repeated alerts over the years. In 2019 alone, asbestos-related casualties exceeded 5,000, underscoring the magnitude of the crisis.
The pressing concern is that the process to assess and remove the degrading concrete panels could potentially disturb asbestos materials. Such disturbance poses a severe risk as asbestos, in its undisturbed state, is relatively harmless. But when agitated, it releases fine fibres that, if inhaled or ingested, can lead to lethal cancers like mesothelioma.
Even though robust management regulations are in place, ensuring that asbestos-afflicted buildings remain closed until its safe disposal, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has highlighted some schools' failure in maintaining an up-to-date asbestos register.
In April 2022, a select committee report on work and pensions appealed to the government to initiate a 40-year deadline for asbestos removal from non-residential structures, prioritising high-risk areas like schools. However, this proposal met with rejection as the government believes it might escalate exposure chances and possibly give rise to poor removal practices.