Asbestos in schools: State Opposition demand State Govt explain why asbestos was left in 10 schools for up to a year

Stock image.
Stock image.

OPPOSITION Education spokeswoman Sue Ellery has demanded the State Government explain to parents why potentially deadly asbestos was left in 10 schools for up to a year after it was found.

Four of the schools – Mount Pleasant, East Fremantle and Millen Primary Schools as well as Point Peron Camp School – still contain the material.

Visual inspections carried out in May and June 2015 identified asbestos-containing material with a risk ranking of one or two at nine of the schools.

A cable pit and electrical board at Point Peron Camp School assessed risk ranking one in November.

The control measure for risk ranking one or two material in the Education Department’s Asbestos Management Plan reads: “Remove source of disturbance or otherwise take immediate action to negate any potential health risk.”

Ms Ellery said the State Government had failed in its duty of care.

“If I was the parent of a child at one of these schools I would be demanding to know how the priorities of the Government have become so skewed that it thinks it is acceptable to leave children exposed to high-risk asbestos for such a long period of time,” she said.

“I accept that the work is best done during school holidays but that does not explain why the remedial work was not carried out in the first school holidays following the reinspections.

“The government needs to explain its reasoning to parents and identify to what extent children have been exposed to risk.”

Education Department executive director of infrastructure John Fischer said following the initial visual inspection, the nature and location of the material had been further assessed to ensure it did not pose any immediate danger to students and staff.

“Timing for removal of asbestos materials in schools is assessed on a case-by-case basis and is usually scheduled during the school holidays to ensure the safest approach for removing materials,” he said.

“The Department’s top priority is to ensure exposure is minimised for staff, students and visitors to the school.”

Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia president Robert Vojakovic slammed the Education Department for both its inspection method and the time taken to remove the material.

“Risk is mainly measured by the release of fibres, and if those fibres can be captured to be analysed and confirmed then indeed the risk must be immediately remedied without any fanciful numerical coding,” he said.

“The universally accepted asbestos risk is very well established that there is no safe level of exposure.

“All asbestos must be safely removed from buildings, particularly in schools where children have long latency periods to experience some sort of disease associated with asbestos dust exposure.”

WA Council of State School Organisations president Kylie Catto also expressed disbelief at the removal timeframes.

“We would expect immediate action to have occurred within a matter of days and not be ongoing for months,” she said.

“The safety of students and staff is integral. If the material has not been removed then we would expect that the school has clearly communicated what steps have been taken to negate any potential health risks.

“Principals, as site managers, have a duty of care and we trust that they will fulfil that role in providing a safe work and learning environment.”

When breathed in, asbestos fibres may become trapped in the lungs where they can remain for decades.

Over time, those fibres can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation that affects breathing and leads to serious health problems.

Asbestos-related diseases characteristically develop over a long period and the first symptoms may not appear for between 10-50 years.

Mesothelioma is an incurable and extremely aggressive form of cancer affecting the lining of the lungs and abdomen that is only known to be caused by asbestos.

It can take up to 45 years to develop after initial exposure and death typically occurs within six to 18 months after diagnosis.

Asbestosis is progressive scarring and thickening of the lung tissue that causes shortness of breath and lung infections.

There is no treatment and it usually leads to death by heart failure.