Asbestos in schools: why Victoria needs a public register

Asbestos containing building materials were used in most Victorian schools until the mid-1980s. Therefore, it remains a potential hazard, if disturbed.

Hundreds of Victorian schools contain asbestos within their buildings and grounds, leaving children at risk of exposure every day if it is disturbed without proper precautions being taken. In many cases, the risks increase if renovation or demolition in preparation for new work is undertaken at schools.

The Victorian Government has allocated a significant budget for the removal of asbestos from schools, and has committed to creating asbestos-free schools by 2020. This is a positive and vital step for creating awareness and ensuring the elimination of further problems in the future. However, to help meet the 2020 target, the Victorian public needs a centralised register to provide information about asbestos removal. 

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Even small, discrete levels of exposure can lead to serious illnesses such as mesothelioma (an asbestos-related terminal cancer). 

The existence of asbestos in schools poses many risks for anyone coming into contact with the grounds and buildings of both public and independent schools. Schools built prior to the mid-1980s are at the highest risk, because asbestos was commonly used in wet areas such as toilet partitions, as well as in eaves and portable classrooms.

Two of the more obvious risk-producing activities are renovations to asbestos-containing buildings, and ordinary wear and tear that disturbs asbestos materials. However, some other less-visible risk factors also exist. Here we discuss two of them, and explain why Victoria needs a public asbestos register. 

Risks of contaminated landfill

The use of asbestos-contaminated landfill within school grounds has recently emerged as a risk to children. Some school ovals and playgrounds have been found to contain traces of fibro asbestos sheeting, which means children are playing on exposed fibres of the material.

There are no regulations that require testing of landfill prior to its use. Accordingly, untested asbestos containing landfill will not be added to the school-based asbestos register, therefore such asbestos is discovered within the landfill after it’s already within the school grounds. This means no matter how thorough a school’s asbestos registration is, if asbestos-containing landfill is brought in for works within school grounds, the risk of exposure becomes a threat. This is both disturbing and potentially tragic for children, parents and the communities of these schools.

Risks from nearby houses

Removing or disturbing asbestos in buildings that surround schools is also a risk to the safety of school communities. Currently, there is no legal requirement to obtain a permit when the bonded asbestos being removed is less than ten square metres in the domestic housing context. This is of particular concern if the activity is happening near a school or within school hours, because there’s no need to comply with any health and safety regulations.

Anything that may unwittingly disturb asbestos in or around a school is of concern to the broader school community.

Why we need a public asbestos register

Currently in Victoria, there is no public register of asbestos in schools. This means Victoria is lagging behind other states in managing the presence of asbestos and being transparent with the community about this.

There are very clear guidelines and policies around the removal of asbestos in schools, including the engagement of an approved asbestos removalist and conducting removals when students and staff are not present. Schools are required to display a warning sign where the presence of asbestos is known, which can help to prevent disturbances to this dangerous material.

However, a public register would create additional safety for students, staff, the community and any contractors embarking on works within the school. This level of knowledge significantly reduces any risk for the school community.

A centralised register would be a welcome step that enables anyone to access the information they need about asbestos removal. It is also an important step in meeting the target of all schools becoming asbestos-free by 2020.

After all, the complete elimination of asbestos in schools is the best way to secure safety for our children.

TOPIC: Asbestos

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Jane McDermott

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Jane McDermott is a Principal Lawyer at Maurice Blackburn, Australia's leading social justice law firm. Jane assists people with asbestos diseases gain compensation. She is based in Maurice Blackburn's Melbourne office. Jane has over 16 years experience litigating asbestos claims and has successfully run claims in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales. She works exclusively in asbestos law and is dedicated to getting the best results for her clients. She is well recognised for her professionalism, persistence and dedication to her clients and all asbestos disease sufferers.Jane was a key proponent in the recent drive to lessen the burden on asbestos sufferers by excluding them from the operation of the Wrongs Act in the Wrongs Amendment (Asbestos Related Claims) Act 2015 in Victoria. In 2011, Jane provided the legal content to the Victorian Cancer Council for its publication Mesothelioma: A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends As part of her social justice commitment, Jane is the Principal responsible for representing RN, an asylum seeker who lost his eye in the Manus Island Violence of February 2014.  Before becoming a lawyer, Jane worked in foreign aid, managing community development and health projects in the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. She remains committed to social justice goals and has volunteered at the Fitzroy Legal Service. Jane is conversant in Spanish and Bahasa Indonesian. Memberships & accreditations Law Institute of Victoria member Australian Lawyers Alliance member Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand member Asbestoswise member Asbestos Council of Australia member         ...

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