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Asbestos in schools — removal or reassurance?

3rd September 2017

Most teachers and school staff are not directly involved in managing their buildings or in carrying out repair or maintenance work. However, they will need to know the location of any asbestos containing materials (ACMs) and how they could be damaged or disturbed.

The hazard is the presence of asbestos, but the risk to the occupants is when the asbestos fibres become airborne and can be inhaled. An asbestos survey identifies the hazard, but on its own rarely identifies the risk present to an effective level; the key requirement is to target resources by properly assessing the risk present and controlling any real risks effectively.

To completely eradicate the risk posed by damage to and deterioration of ACMs there have been calls for the complete removal of asbestos from all school buildings.
Of course, whilst it is commendable that these concerns are being voiced publicly, and that everyone continues to recognise the risks to health associated with asbestos fibres, full consideration needs to be given to the practicalities and scale of work that would be required to meet these ambitions.

The design of many older education buildings means that the only way to completely remove any asbestos present would be to almost completely dismantle parts of them or demolish the entire building.
Against this sort of measure, there are no projections on what the cost of this work would be to the UK economy or how any removal costs would compare to the costs of alternative forms of management and reassurance monitoring that are now available to duty holders.

As a result, although setting out a long term strategy for the removal of asbestos from schools remains a legitimate objective, financial considerations and pressure on resources means it is clearly not feasible to remove all asbestos from schools in the short term.

In the circumstances, rather than resorting to full removal of asbestos, modern air monitoring and analytical techniques using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) provide the means to accurately measure any risks to occupants that might be present and enable the appropriate remedial actions to be taken.

SEM enables asbestos in air to be quantified to very low levels, typically achieving lower limits of detection to 0.0005 fibres/ cm 3 and below, compared to the 0.01 fibres/cm 3 capability of standard phase contrast microscopy (PCM). SEM can also distinguish between different asbestos fibre types and other non-organic fibres using energy dispersive x-ray analysis (EDXA).

Current analysis using standard PCM has a limit of detection wholly unsuitable for risk assessment in an occupied environment and is only really valid for asbestos removal monitoring. In such circumstances, SEM’s ability to more accurately determine whether asbestos fibres are present means it can better identify the level of any risk that might be present — and what remedial actions are required.

Used in this way, reassurance air monitoring using SEM analysis can enable actual and direct asbestos risk measurements to be made in specific school locations. This is turn can be used to prioritise risk and target spending on abatement accordingly by avoiding areas that do not present a risk to the health of occupants.

This means that scarce maintenance resources can be properly allocated for the treatment and removal of the most dangerous ACMs in schools, with the continued management of any remaining asbestos until a phased programme of asbestos removal can be initiated.

In this way, air sampling and analysis utilising powerful SEM can ensure the effectiveness of existing asbestos management plans and provide the reassurance that children and teachers are not being exposed to harmful fibre levels.

Click below to download our white paper and read more about the beneficial role SEM can play in managing asbestos in schools.

 

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