'My husband died after asbestos exposure but it's still in schools – teachers must be warned' – iNews

A widow whose husband died after being diagnosed with a cancer linked to exposure to asbestos believes his teaching career “ultimately killed him” and wants to warn other former teachers their health could be at risk decades later.
Carol Plater told i her husband John was “an amazing character” who dedicated his life to teaching and was fit and healthy until he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure, in December 2019.
Mr Plater, 68, underwent chemotherapy and invasive surgery which took its toll on his health and he died in February last year leaving behind his wife of 48 years, their two daughters and three grandchildren.
Before his death, Mr Plater had instructed lawyers via an asbestos support group to bring a claim against the local authority where he worked. Liability was initially denied and the case was listed for a hearing in the High Court.
However, shortly before the hearing, the council conceded liability and agreed to pay compensation of £245,000.
Ms Plater says no amount of money could ever replace her husband and she wants to speak out about his story to warn other teachers and former teachers of the risks posed by asbestos decades after working at schools where it is present and about the need to have their health checked.
Lynne Squibb, the chief executive of the Hampshire Asbestos Support Awareness Group (Hasag), a charity that supports those affected by asbestos related disease including the Plater family, told i a rising number of teachers are dying after exposure to asbestos year-on-year.
A total of 305 teachers were confirmed to have died from mesothelioma between 2001 and 2016 – and she says there is still asbestos in around 85 per cent of UK schools leaving teachers and pupils at potential risk.
“Asbestos was the material to use during the 1950s and 1960s as it was good for insulating properties and fire resistant and it was used in many public buildings such as schools,” she said.
“We have lobbied the Government and written to MPs for many years asking for a planned removal of asbestos from state schools but they keep telling us that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) say asbestos is safe to remain in schools if it is properly maintained.
“But I don’t think we would be seeing rising numbers of teachers dying of asbestos-related disease if this was the case.
“We believe there will be ongoing risks to teachers and pupils until asbestos is removed from state schools and public buildings including low level exposure when teachers pin things to ceilings and walls.
“But we feel the Government won’t commit to removing asbestos because of the expense.”
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibre which was widely used in construction and other industries until the late 1990s.
Before its dangers were known, asbestos was often used in buildings for insulation, in flooring and roofing and sprayed on ceilings and walls. Its use is now banned in construction the UK, but buildings put up before the year 2000 may still have asbestos in them.
Ms Plater told i her husband qualified as a teacher in 1974 and taught design technology and that the main exposure to asbestos is believed to have occurred at a school in East Sussex back in 1979. He taught at that school for around seven years.
“John was working in a new workshop with a metal heating area which was lagged with asbestolux. He flagged it, but he was told it was fine,” explained Ms Plater, who lives in Brighton.
She said her husband was exposed as he used asbestos gloves each time a pupil approached the heat treatment area and over time, these became threadbare and worn meaning asbestos fibres were released into the atmosphere.
The school also supplied asbestos fibre mats for pupils to place pieces of design work on before taking them to the heat treatment area where a gas and air flame was used to heat them. This caused dust to be created on the surface of those mats and over time, the mats became old and worn releasing more fibres into the atmosphere.
“John also dry swept surfaces at the end of the day and was unknowingly circulating asbestos fibres around,” added Ms Plater.
She described how Mr Plater, who was a teacher for 33 years, was fit and active and did lots of extracurricular activities at school such as Duke of Edinburgh Gold and was a keen skier and rock climber.
He had no symptoms until September 2019 when he began suffering abdominal pains. Doctors suspected gallstones, but during scans, they realised it was something more serious and in January 2020, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs.
The disease is incurable but Mr Slater underwent treatment to try to slow it down. However, he became very poorly and died on 24 February last year.
“John taught for 33 years and his career in essence killed him,” said Ms Plater. “Teaching ultimately led to his death, when in reality, he should have lived for another 20 years.
“John was an amazing person, a great dad and grandad and we have all been robbed of him too early.”
Although the claim was made against the local authority which paid out the compensation, Ms Plater told i she believes the Government is to blame for not taking action to remove asbestos from schools.
“There is a lot of asbestos still in schools and I am concerned that teachers are not flagged as needing health checks to make sure they have not been affected.
“Mesothelioma takes a long time to develop and I think it is criminal that the risk to school teachers is not publicised more.”
John McClean, outgoing chairman of the Joint Union Asbestos committee, which aims to protect education workers and pupils from the dangers of asbestos in educational buildings, told i the latest figures for teachers and educational professionals who have died of mesothelioma deaths is 102 during 2019.
But he says the true figure will be even higher due to the way deaths are recorded. “Anyone who dies over the age of 75 is not recorded as an industrial death,” he said.
“Also, the HSE records mesothelioma deaths by the last profession someone worked. So if someone worked as a teacher for many years and then took retirement and worked as something else before their death, their occupation would not be listed as a teacher.”
Mr McClean added that while 40 to 50 years ago, mesothelioma deaths greatly affected shipyard workers and people who worked in demolition and lagging, those professions have now largely died out and the cases occurring now are people who were inadvertently exposed to asbestos in the buildings where they worked.
“Mesothelioma can happen up to 50 years after exposure and is a slow growth cancer from very low levels of exposure and there is a rising number of teachers affected,” he said.
“It is in the fabric of some buildings but people do not necessarily know it is there. When you are in a building, the legal duty is with the local authority.
“Schools which are more than 50 years old will still potentially have asbestos and around 85 per cent of schools in the UK have some asbestos in them.”
Edmund Young, principal lawyer at Slater and Gordon, said: “Mr Plater contacted Slater and Gordon in February 2020, via an asbestos support group. It was disappointing when liability was initially denied and court proceedings commenced in the High Court of Justice.
“The case was listed for a hearing in the High Court to determine whether the council had any real prospects of defending the claim. Shortly before that hearing the council conceded liability and agreed to pay compensation in the total sum of £245,000.
“Cases like this are incredibly important as they highlight the plight of former school teachers, workers and pupils who have been negligently exposed to contaminated asbestos dust and are consequently diagnosed many decades later with an incurable disease. This is through no fault of their own and has a devastating effect on many families.
“The Asbestos in Schools campaign has raised much awareness of the dangers of the widespread use of asbestos in school buildings and equipment, but little has been done by this and previous governments to remove all asbestos containing materials from school premises – materials which continue to present a danger to our children and their teachers.
“It is hoped that this win in the High Court will further raise awareness of this issue and help safeguard our children and teachers against the threat asbestos continues to pose.”
An East Sussex County Council spokesperson said: “Our thoughts remain with the family and friends of Mr Plater.
“We would like to reassure parents, teachers and school staff that we are committed to providing a safe and healthy environment for our employees and pupils. We take our responsibilities in relation to asbestos management very seriously and comply with all statutory guidance released by the Health and Safety Executive.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We take the safety of our children and those who work with them incredibly seriously.
“We expect all local authorities, governing bodies and academy trusts to have robust plans in place to manage asbestos in school buildings effectively, in line with their legal duties.
“The Health and Safety Executive advises that, as long as asbestos-containing materials are in good condition, well protected, and unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, it is usually safer to manage them in place.
“Since 2015, we have allocated £11.3bn to those responsible for school buildings for essential maintenance and improvements, including the removal of asbestos when it is the safest course of action.”
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