Saturday, January 24, 2015

Killer in the Classroom

MESOTHELIOMA DAY, 2014.  Vince Hagedorn, (left, in white shirt), releasing doves at St.John's Gate, in London.  Vince's partner, Carole, had died of mesothelioma not long before.

IT does not seem absolutely clear what led to the death of Jennifer Barnett. The former art teacher died from malignant mesothelioma in September last year.  Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that  develops in the lining of the lungs, or sometimes other organs, and is usually caused by exposure to asbestos fibres.

Jennifer did cut asbestos sheets when she worked on farms in her twenties. But that was not the end of her contact with the dangerous substance.   

As her husband Nigel Barnett, of Painswick, Glos, told an inquest: “She became an art teacher and worked at various schools, often hanging paintings on walls containing asbestos.”  He added: "She was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in July 2013 and I was with her when she collapsed and died at home."

Coroner Katy Skerrett said: “It is clear that there was sufficient exposure to asbestos in her occupation for me to reach a conclusion that this lady died from an industrial disease.”  The inquest heard how the deceased had chemotherapy treatment "which was palliative and eased the pain."

There is no cure for mesothelioma as yet. And because the killer disease works slowly, it is often detected too late for sufferers to undergo chemotherapy or benefit by surgery.

In the past we heard about asbestos-related diseases affecting miners, building workers, workers in ships and shipyards, women who made gas masks containing asbestos during the War, even wives washing their husbands' overalls filled with asbestos dust. But in more recent years we have started to learn that with asbestos present in more than three quarters of Britain's schools, teachers are a group at risk.
Carole Hagedorn, a foreign languages teacher from Essex, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in the Summer of 2008, after being exposed to asbestos during more than 30 years of working in schools.


'When, at the beginning of my career, I went into classrooms to teach year eights the perfect tense, I did not expect it to end with an industrial disease,'  she told the NAS-UWT Easter conference in 2009.

Following her diagnosis, Mrs Hagedorn had to give up teaching, and endured 18 weeks of chemotherapy. The average life expectancy from diagnosis is between six and 18 months, she said.
'I am understandably unhappy that the lack of proper asbestos control will end my life prematurely, like some sort of collateral damage or natural wastage in the education game,' she said.
Mrs Hagedorn warned: 'It is believed that a single fibre of asbestos may cause mesothelioma. There is no such thing as safe asbestos or a safe limit.

'Children are thought to be much more susceptible than adults, though we won't know for another 20 to 30 years how many will already have contracted this cancer from exposure in schools because of its long latency period.'

Mrs Hagedorn, who received a standing ovation after telling her story, called for a national risk assessment of asbestos in schools, and for it to be cleared as quickly as possible.The responsibility for protecting children and teachers lies wholly with government, she said.

Read more:

In 2012 it emerged that a planned year-long survey of England's 23,000 schools would examine every aspect of buildings – from classroom decoration to whether fire alarms and toilets were in working order – but would specifically exclude asbestos, the most serious threat of all to staff and pupils.
An internal Department for Education email,d,ated September 2011, said pressure to include asbestos in the assessment of the state of schools had to be resisted due to "cost implications and the fact that asbestos management should already be carried out under existing legal requirements".

Former teachers, mesothelioma sufferers and campaigners felt the government was playing down the dangers even though Department of Education advice urged teachers to avoid pinning things on walls for fear of disturbing asbestos, and to prevent children running in corridors, slamming doors etc - all  the boisterous activity that defies admonitions and discipline in any normal school.

Sarah Bowman, who had been diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2009, was convinced she had been  exposed to asbestos at school. Brent Council admitted that William Gladstone School, since demolished, contained asbestos, but claimed any connection was "highly unlikely".

"I was 41 when I was diagnosed, You can't tell someone they are going to die at 41. I'd never even heard of mesothelioma. I had heard of asbestos and knew it was no good for you, but I didn't know it killed you. When I was diagnosed my world blew apart, I felt very alone, very scared. They know there was asbestos in the school I went to. I'll take this as far as I can. I remember one time when a kid threw a chair and it stuck in the wall and we all laughed – but now I know it's enough to disturb the asbestos, just like putting drawing pins into the wall.

"I think the Government should be more honest about the risks. They should manage it correctly and label it so that everybody knows about it.  Asbestos is 'safe if it is managed correctly', but how can it be? Kids slam doors, that's what kids do, and that's enough to disturb asbestos."

"All of the schools that I've worked in have been of a certain age and have all had asbestos" said Carole Hagerdorn. "I've had no other career so I am convinced I was exposed at schools. The worst thing about it is the shock because you don't expect to get an industrial disease from working in a school; your life changes shape, becoming a round of treatments and operations.

"The Government has played down the risks over the years. The bottom line is that it is very expensive to remove asbestos, but there has to be a phased plan of removal; working out which are the worst schools and dealing with those first. There needs to be some kind of commitment from the Government."

With local authorities forced to make cuts,  and many more schools removed from their control, it is blatantly obvious that government cannot shrug off its responsibility for doing something to remove asbestos from schools, and to make sure it is removed safely. Even if this goes against the grain of cuts to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and what David Cameron calls"red tape".

Carole Hagedorn died in June last year, aged 63. It's possible her life had been extended five years by undergoing a pioneering treatment that uses a deactivated cold virus to kick-start the immune system ­enabling it to target and fight the cancer. Carole and her husband Vince had made the most of this time by travelling and enjoying life as best they could.  But they did not stop campaigning.  On Action Mesothelioma Day, July 4, Vince Hagedorn spoke in London on behalf of the Asbestos in Schools campaign, and released doves in honour of Carole and the other victims.

In September it was reported that Brent council had admitted liability for Sarah Bowman's exposure to asbestos while at school, and agreed to pay her  compensation. Ms. Bowman had had better news still. After successful removal of a tumour the medics had reported no cancerous cells remained. Sarah Bowman said she was hoping to return to work. But with her solicitors she will carry on pressing for the government to inspect all schools.

Sandra Naylor was not so fortunate. In April 2013,  having been diagnosed with mesothelioma, she decided to sue her local council, but she died at the beginning of August 2014.As a child Sandra attended Calverdale High in Airdrie. Her solicitor said “The school had just been constructed when our client was a pupil there and for the first year or so she recalls workmen regularly working in the school. “It is believed that her exposure to the asbestos dust came from the work being undertaken by the workmen in various parts of the school whilst she was there as a pupil. She has no knowledge of any other asbestos exposure in her life.”
Sandra Naylor   SANDRA NAYLOR, of Airdrie, North Lanarkshire.  Died of Mesothelioma last year

Whether Scottish ministers have been doing any better on schools asbestos than their counterparts in London is something that needs looking at.

"Workmen discovered white and brown asbestos while carrying out roof repairs to Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow's South Side during the summer holidays. The work was completed on August 8, just five days before pupils returned to Glasgow's biggest high school after the summer break".

Of course it is not only teachers,or pupils, that are exposed to danger in schools.

“THE family of a former school cleaner who died after coming into contact with asbestos is hoping to track down her colleagues. Mrs Routledge had worked at the old Fulwell Infants School, in Sunderland, as a cleaner from 1963 until the 1990s.

It is believed that the source of the asbestos was an old coal-fired boiler, which is thought to have been lagged with the substance.”

David Atkinson was a carpenter who may have been exposed to asbestos working on farm buildings or in a college.  He died of malignant mesothelioma.

On January 19, the issue was raised in Parliament.  

Asked by Helen Jones 19 January 2015 Teachers: Mesothelioma Commons221236

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what estimate she has made of the number of teachers and former teachers who have contracted mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos in schools.

Answered by: Mr David Laws 22 January 2015

The Department for Education is not aware of data that links the number of cases of mesothelioma contracted to occupation.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) produces statistics about the link between mesothelioma related deaths and occupation, which the Department uses to inform its policy. The HSE statistics are published online at:

Michael Lees of the Asbestos in Schools campaign commented: "The Minister is being pedantic, and therefore has avoided stating that more than 291 school teachers have died of mesothelioma since 1980 and at least 158 have died in the last ten years.

"Presumably the Minister does not want to acknowledge a link between asbestos exposure at school and the subsequent deaths of teachers, support staff and former pupils. He presumably justifies his answer because HSE advise DfE that teachers are developing mesothelioma because they have been exposed elsewhere other than at school.

Some might have been, but there is extensive evidence of school teachers being exposed to asbestos at school, in some cases frequently and over a prolonged period of time. HSE do not investigate mesothelioma deaths and do not examine the evidence of asbestos exposure of teachers who have died of mesothelioma.

Whereas coroners do, and in many cases have given a verdict of death from industrial disease because of evidence of asbestos exposure at school.


The government has been dragging its  heels about acknowledging the size of the asbestos in schools issue  and its tragic effects, let alone taking responsibility for tackling it.  But it now seems that relentless campaigning, growing public awareness, and perhaps the thought of an election coming, are having some effect.

Michael Lees reports:


I am pleased to say that we have just heard DfE will be holding a meeting of the DfE Asbestos Steering Group on 3rd or 5th February “To share with you the findings of our review and discuss our proposals for our policy on the management of asbestos in schools in the future.”

I will attend along with other members of the Steering Group and will inform you of the outcome.

Best wishes

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