First concrete, now asbestos: schools could shut for months (

Asbestos could be exposed in schools affected by crumbling concrete, experts have warned, meaning that many could shut for months.

There are fears that such is the scale of the problem that some schools may even have to be demolished.

More than 150 schools were told last week — days before they were due to reopen — that they would have to close buildings containing unstable reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).

Engineers have warned with increasing urgency that RAAC, which was used by builders between the 1950s and 1980s and is often described as “Aero bar” concrete, can become unstable when it exceeds its 30-year lifespan.

Experts warn that the presence of RAAC also increases the danger of exposure to asbestos, which kills 5,000 people a year in the UK. Asbestos is safe while stable but if it is disturbed — for example, if a classroom roof made from crumbling concrete suddenly collapses — it could release fibres which can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. Even removing or assessing RAAC panels could disturb asbestos, engineers said.

The Sunday Times is campaigning for the government to introduce a proactive phased removal of asbestos.

It is present in at least 80 per cent of schools nationwide. Crucially, RAAC and asbestos often exist in the same buildings, as both were used widely in the postwar building boom, making it inevitable that many of the head teachers forced to deal with the crumbling concrete this week will also have to tackle asbestos.

Even assessing the state of concrete in schools will be complicated, according to Matt Byatt, president of the Institution of Structural Engineers. “If there’s a risk that it is going to be disturbed, [asbestos] has to be removed by a specialist registered company prior to the main construction work starting. So it does add complication, it adds cost, it adds time.”

John Wallace, managing director of Ridgemont, a specialist construction and real estate law firm in London, said: “Those responsible for such buildings and those engaged to undertake the work carry a heavy burden. Serious consequences follow for those that do not meet their obligations under the relevant legislation.”

Asbestos, which is the name for naturally occuring mineral fibres, is strong, does not dissolve in water and is heat-resistant so was used in building materials, particularly for insulation. However, it was banned in the UK in 1985 after the health risks were exposed.

Asked about RAAC and abestos, Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, said on Sunday: “In terms of the information that we have in front of us to date we have acted immediately. We will continue to act, we will continue to invest. And I think it’s very important to reassure parents that where there is an issue as soon as we find out about it we will act.”

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