By Rebecca Buxton, an asbestos-related disease lawyer at Irwin Mitchell

Teachers, pupils and other school staff could be at risk of dangerous asbestos exposure after figures show more than 900 Welsh schools contain asbestos.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibre which was widely used in the construction industry from the 1950s onwards.

Asbestos - the ticking time bomb

It has long been known that asbestos is a risk to health and the first medical paper on the subject appeared in the British Medical Journal in 1924. When asbestos dust is breathed in, it enters the lungs and can gradually damage them.

Sadly, there are more than 5,000 asbestos deaths per year in the UK. Many of these victims breathed in the asbestos fibres decades before developing any symptoms. The fibres were a ticking time bomb wreaking havoc in the lungs.

Exposure can lead to diseases such as mesothelioma

One of the diseases associated with asbestos is an aggressive terminal cancer called mesothelioma. A person need only breathe in small quantities of asbestos dust to increase their risk of developing this rare cancer.

Last year 22 UK teachers died of mesothelioma and it is thought that the UK has the highest mesothelioma death rate for teachers in the world.

Experts have also previously advised the government that children exposed to asbestos are much more likely to develop mesothelioma than adults. This is because a child will normally live longer and have more time for the cancer to develop.

Why is Asbestos still in our schools

Although its use was banned in the UK in 1999, left over asbestos can still be widely found in schools, hospitals and other public buildings.

Asbestos removal works are very costly and, as the fibres need to be breathed in to cause harm, the risk can be reduced by sealing it and properly labelling it. Staff should be given adequate training about asbestos so it is not disturbed by accident and its presence should be regularly monitored.

Shockingly, a BBC Freedom of Information (FOI) request recently found that some checks in Welsh schools had not been carried out for years, with some dating back to 2011. This risks asbestos materials deteriorating or being disturbed without staff or pupils being aware of this.

Unions are calling on the government for the urgent removal of asbestos from our schools to help keep our teachers and children safe. The Welsh Government Association has said that it is working with partners to “eliminate any risk as quickly as possible”.

This will all sadly be too late for some of those already exposed to the deadly fibres.

What to do if you have been exposed to asbestos

Fortunately, most people exposed to some asbestos fibres will go on to have no ill effects but, if you or a loved one has been unlucky enough to be diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, our solicitors can help. Our expert team has over 30 years’ experience and has worked on landmark asbestos claims in the Supreme Court.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people and their families diagnosed with mesothelioma and other diseases at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section.