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Voice: "Children at more risk from cancer after exposure to asbestos" says committee

Government advisory committee on cancer concludes children are more at risk from exposure to asbestos.

Today, the Government’s advisory Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) published their final statement that concludes children are more vulnerable to exposure to asbestos than adults - the younger the child the greater the risk. 

Their conclusion should have a profound influence on Government policy towards asbestos in schools. The Minister, David Laws MP, has stated that their policy is evidence based and confirmed at the Education Select committee hearing on 13th March that the government will review its policy on asbestos in schools on receipt of the COC’s final report.

The COC have been examining the evidence over the last two years and looked at two aspects. One was whether children are more vulnerable because they will live longer for the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma, to develop, and the second is whether they are more vulnerable because of their physical immaturity. 

There was unanimous agreement that children are more at risk because they will live longer for mesothelioma to develop. It is estimated that the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma for a five year old child is about 5 times greater than an adult aged thirty. 

Insufficient scientific research has been carried out to determine whether or not a child’s physical immaturity makes them more vulnerable, so the Committee were unable to come to a conclusion over this aspect. However a leading paediatrician warned that the juvenile lung is particularly susceptible to injury and that lung damage below the age of five would remain for life.

At the Education Select Committee hearing on Asbestos in Schools on 13th March 2013 Professor Julian Peto, a leading epidemiologist and a member of the COC, gave evidence that “It is reasonable to say that something in the order of 100 or 150 deaths per year from mesothelioma in women could in the future be due to asbestos levels in schools up to the 1960s and 1970s.” Professor Peto also considers that “It is a reasonable assumption that the same number of males as females are dying of mesothelioma caused by their asbestos exposure at school.”

Therefore between 200 and 300 people could die a year of mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure as children at school. It is also a reasonable assumption that more than 3,000 mesothelioma deaths could occur because of asbestos exposure as a child at school. That is an appalling death toll from the simple act of attending school.
The estimates are based on the levels of exposure during the 1960s and 1970s, however most of the asbestos remains in place and so does the risk as all of it is now old and much is deteriorating.

An internal review of Government policy will not be impartial.

The COC report underlines that children are considerably more at risk from asbestos exposure than adults. On receipt of the report the Department for Education and the HSE intend conducting an internal review of their own policies. However it was clear from the evidence given by the Minister and a senior director of HSE at the Educational Select Committee hearing that on almost every aspect they were entirely satisfied with their present policies and procedures. An internal review would inevitably protect that position and would be neither impartial nor self critical. 

The Asbestos in Schools Group (AiS) and the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) have therefore called for an independent review of Government policies. The review must be an honest and open assessment of policies and must not be manipulated to justify present policies. Once the review is complete the Government must delay no longer, and must urgently implement measures that really do make our schools safe from the dangers of asbestos.

The Chair of AiS, Annette Brooke OBE MP, said: “In light of the publication of this report, I call on the Government to urgently review their policies on asbestos in schools. The Department of Education must publish a strategic plan involving an audit of school buildings and an assessment of the risks. Over a period of time the plan must aim for the removal of the most dangerous asbestos materials.”

The Chair of JUAC, Julie Winn, said: “The fact that children are more vulnerable to asbestos makes schools unique workplaces as they contain large numbers of children. The knowledge and science in terms of intrinsic susceptibility is incomplete. Children cannot control their exposure and they do not assume the risk voluntarily. Any policy approach that adopts anything other than a precautionary approach is socially and morally unacceptable. Where there is uncertainty policy should err on the side of health & safety and a precautionary approach should be taken. An independent review of government policy is long overdue.”


Annette Brooke OBE MP  christine.payne@parliament.uk   Tel: 020 7219 8193
Julie Winn   Julie.Winn@switalskis.com  Tel: 01924 882000 
Michael Lees   michael@lees1262.fsworld.co.uk   Tel: 01409 241496 mob: 0791 0947362

Note for editors: The COC final statement will be placed on the COC web-site at 10 am on 7th June. The statement is embargoed until then, however it is essentially the same as the 2nd draft statement which is at: http://www.iacoc.org.uk/papers/documents/CC20134AsbestosinschoolsStatement2nddraft.pdf

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