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Westminster Safety Disagreement Highlights Risk in Schools

LONDON, March 25 /PRNewswire/ -- Clinica - the world's leading medical technology journal - is calling for a public inquiry into the state of asbestos regulation in the UK, in light of discrepancies over the risk of exposure to asbestos at London's Palace of Westminster.

On the day of a parliamentary debate on the presence of asbestos in schools, the latest developments in Clinica's investigation into the extent of the problem and the ensuing healthcare need, add weight to calls for a more precautionary approach and greater readiness, including the creation of a national asbestos-related diseases research centre.

Clinica has obtained a report that updates and expands on allegations reported in June 2008. The report, produced for the Parliamentary Works Services Directorate by Goddard Consulting (an established asbestos safety consultant for the Palace authorities), dated January 23 2009, alleges that a series of recommendations have not been acted upon in relation to known and unknown levels of risk of exposure to asbestos in many parts of the Palace.

Prefacing the report with the warning that "the presence of asbestos has not been managed in accordance with the various regulations", the 112-page document summarises the location of known asbestos contamination; lists the "apparent breaches" to the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2002 and 2006, in the face of previous recommendations; and provides new recommendations based on the current situation. It also collates some 80 pages of survey reports and correspondence related to asbestos safety concerns, dating back to 2005.

In the light of the reassurances given to Clinica by both the Parliamentary Works Services Directorate (PWSD) and the Health and Safety Executive (responsible for regulating asbestos safety in the UK) since June 2008, the HSE was asked yesterday to confirm its position on asbestos safety at the Palace.

A spokesperson said that it had received a copy of the report and "will be considering its contents". Meanwhile, a Guardian article published today, prompted by Clinica's findings, features a response from the PWSD. It cites the conclusions of a survey by another consultancy, said to have given the Palace a "clean bill of health".

"This discrepancy between the two perspectives is far from reassuring, given the questionable history of asbestos management at the Palace," said Clinica's investigations editor, Bernard Murphy. "Nor can it ease concerns related to the widespread, potentially hazardous levels of asbestos contamination - and its potential mismanagement - in other public structures, notably schools and hospitals."

"Some high-profile examples of management failures have reached the media, but the risk of any such instance in schools, in particular, cannot be entertained. Yet there is growing evidence, however isolated and disputed - including the growing incidence of asbestos-related disease and deaths among teachers - that it is actually happening."

A parliamentary debate on "asbestos in schools" is due to take place in Westminster Hall today. It is being led by the Liberal Democrat shadow work and pensions minister, Paul Rowen, with the support of other MPs.

The leading aim of an increasingly vocal campaign to address concerns related to the construction of around 20,000 schools when asbestos was commonly used, is the establishment of a publicly-accessible register of asbestos in schools, based on a comprehensive and transparent surveying regime. Clinica is calling for an urgent review and tightening of asbestos safety policy, in line with these concerns.

The HSE seems averse: "It is difficult to justify creating a register when there is a system in place that, if used properly, provides the correct information to everybody liable to disturb asbestos. We mustn't forget that it is the workers liable to disturb the building fabric who are most at risk - and not people whose normal activities such as teaching who don't come into contact with asbestos (sic)," a spokesperson told Clinica yesterday.

The key, of course, to this perspective is the phrase "if used properly", and the by now wholly questionable perception that teachers - and pupils - do not come into contact with asbestos.

Notes to Editors:

Hope for those exposed: Asbestos diseases R&D network

As the debate rages in Westminster, ministers have been told of the growing magnitude of the need for more and better-co-ordinated R&D on asbestos-related diseases. Meetings held at ministerial level in the run up to Action Mesothelioma Day (February 27) were seen as having built momentum behind the creation of a national R&D centre for asbestos-related diseases (NCARD) in the UK.

A proposal drawn up recently by the British Mesothelioma Interest Group (BMIG) details the areas of research: early detection, diagnostic/prognostic and therapy-monitoring technologies (notably biomarkers and imaging), surgery (palliative/radical), radiotherapy and imaging novel therapies.

SOURCE Clinica
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