The council has confirmed that 27 of its 38 schools in the borough contain asbestos. Two have the most dangerous type, reports Josh Mellor, Local Democracy Reporter
Two-thirds of council-owned schools in Waltham Forest contain asbestos that could be deadly if it is not safely managed.
Fears about the safety of school buildings have increased since the government abruptly closed more than 150 school buildings across the country due to the presence of crumbling concrete known as unstable reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).
Although Waltham Forest Council says it is “not aware” of any school buildings in the borough that have RAAC, it has confirmed that dangerous asbestos is present in many school buildings.
Until the year 2000 asbestos was commonly used as a building material and has been described as a “hidden killer” of thousands of people each year that can lead to an incurable type of cancer if it is disturbed and then inhaled.
However, when asbestos is identified in buildings, it is usually left in place with safety measures unless it is in poor condition or likely to be disturbed.
The condition of the asbestos and what parts of the schools contain it, is unclear. None of the 38 schools on the list have responded to requests for comment from the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS).
A council spokesperson told the LDRS it carries out “regular management surveys” for the substance and an “annual review” of all 38 schools.
They added: “Where material containing asbestos is in good condition and is unlikely to be disturbed it will be clearly identified and left in place with a regular inspection regime.
“Any material containing asbestos in a poor condition will be carefully assessed by approved contractors before being repaired, encapsulated, or removed in accordance with legislation.
“The safety of school staff and students is our top priority.
“We will not hesitate before addressing any issues with materials containing asbestos in council-owned buildings that could pose a risk to health.”
According to the council’s response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by the LDRS, 27 of the 38 school buildings owned by the council contain white asbestos, or chrysotile, which was the most commonly used type before it was banned in 1999.
Eleven others also contain brown asbestos, or amosite.
Two schools in the borough – Walthamstow School for Girls and Newport Primary School in Leyton – contain crocidolite, or blue asbestos, one of the most dangerous types.
Crocidolite is regarded as the most dangerous type of asbestos because it is made up of extremely fine sharp fibres that can be more easily inhaled and lodged in the lungs or abdomen.
According to Public Health England, “short-term and high-level” inhalation of asbestos can lead to lung cancer, mesothelioma as well as pleural disorders like pleural plaques.
Asbestos, when inhaled, has a latency period of approximately 30 years meaning that many only develop cancer decades after exposure.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), a government regulator, estimates that asbestos exposure is linked to five thousand deaths a year.
Since the 1980s, Waltham Forest Council has faced several controversies linked to the safe management of asbestos in its buildings, including at a school and the town hall.
Both the council and its part-owned property consultancy company NPS London Limited, now known as Evolve Norse, have criminal convictions for health and safety failings.
In 2012, the HSE prosecuted NPS London Limited and other two construction companies – leading to fines totalling £1.2million – for potentially exposing workers to asbestos at St Mary’s Primary School in Walthamstow.
Records of council asbestos surveys show that in 2019 it carried out “targeted” surveys of asbestos in drinking fountains in 21 schools. The council told the Echo that it carried out “R&D asbestos surveys in anticipation of upgrading school premises by installing drinking fountains”.
Nick Tiratsoo, who runs local blog Waltham Forest Matters, has urged the council to be “open” about asbestos in schools to assure the public that the appropriate safety measures have been taken.
Nick, who has played a key role in investigating the council’s safety breaches and reporting concerns to HSE, said: “In the past, and this is particularly true of the school in Walthamstow, there was a lot of confusion about different surveys done and who was in charge and so on.
“Sub-contractors and different agents were used to investigate and it seems quite often that confusion continues, in the town hall at least.
“For parents, I don’t think anybody should panic necessarily, but I think they should ask for assurances as well.”
Mick Holder, a local health and safety specialist, said: “If the building was constructed before the 1990s or so it will probably contain asbestos of one kind or another.
“Crumbly collapsing buildings are likely to expose and or disturb asbestos nearby. These buildings may have historically been releasing asbestos fibres anyway, RAAC or no RAAC.
“This is an opportunity to remove all asbestos in those buildings and green retrofit or demolish and green rebuild, but the likely outcome will be extended closure, the provision of thousands of temporary [portable cabins] that become permanent and then crumble into disrepair as consecutive governments of all parties have done historically.”
Which schools in the borough have asbestos?
All three types, including the most dangerous, crocidolite:
Walthamstow School for Girls and Newport Primary School.
Chrysotile (white asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos):
Chapel End Infant School, Dawlish Primary School, Gwyn Jones Primary School, Henry Maynard Primary School, Leytonstone Secondary School, Mission Grove Primary School, Stoneydown Park Primary School, Thorpe Park Primary School, Whitehall Primary School.
Acacia Nursery, Ainslie Wood Primary School, Belmont Primary School, Chingford Church of England Primary School, Coppermill Primary School, George Tomlinson Primary School, Handsworth Primary School, Jenny Hammond Primary School, Kelmscott Secondary School, The Hawkswood Group – Hawkswood Primary and Burnside Secondary, Low Hall Nursery, Oakhill Primary School, Parkside Primary School, Winns Primary School.
Waltham Forest’s controversial history of asbestos management
In an HSE prosecution in 2015, Waltham Forest Council was fined £66,000 for failing to adequately protect its employees’ from asbestos in the town hall.
An expert report carried out by HSE found there had been “no coherent plan to manage asbestos materials” at the town hall and “no system of regular inspection”.
Last year, it emerged that the council paid hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation to a former employee who regularly used the basement.
The council had known of “widespread asbestos contamination” in the basement since a survey in 1984 but did not warn the man, who later developed a rare cancer linked to inhaling asbestos fibres.
In total, this claim cost the council’s insurance company £421,000 in compensation, private medical costs and legal fees.
Despite this history of poor management, reports that Waltham Forest had not updated its overall asbestos management plan in nine years led to a formal internal investigation.
The council’s chief legal officer Mark Hynes, who led the investigation, admitted this was true but concluded that it was “at worst a minor administrative failure” because records were kept on a separate computer system.
Although he found there was a breach of asbestos safety law could not be “established”, he said that a “churn” of staff meant the plan was never formally signed off and “no one was using” a red box on the system that flags the need for urgent reviews or updates.
Update: Two corrections have been issued to this article. An earlier version of this article stated that “38” council-owned schools in the borough contain asbestos. This has been corrected to state “27 of 38” council-owned schools contain asbestos. An earlier version also stated that 27 of the 28 council-owned schools contain asbestos; this has been changed to state 27 of the 38 schools contain asbestos.
A comment has also been added in from the council in regards to asbestos surveys completed on school sites.