According to the GDE, the asbestos schools it has identified for replacement were all built before the 1980s.
That makes them older than 40 years, and there is evidence that some of them are not in a good state of repair.
Noordgesig Primary School in Soweto is an example. It has received a great deal of media attention because of the dilapidated condition of some of its 40 asbestos classrooms.
It has been scheduled for renovations since 2010, according to Equal Education, a non-governmental organisation that has been campaigning to improve the state of South Africa’s schools since 2008.
Yet seven years later, the school’s 1,500 pupils and 39 teachers are still waiting for the asbestos to be removed and replaced by brick and mortar buildings.
The school is one of the 29 schools the GDE has listed for replacement. But the new school is still at the design stage.
The school infrastructure norms and standards aren’t the only regulations that apply to schools buildings that contain asbestos.
In 2001, the Department of Labour, as part of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, put in place asbestos regulations that apply to the department of education as an employer of thousands of teachers and other education staff.
Gabriel Mizan, an occupational hygiene scientist at the NIOH, summarised what the department of education has a duty, as an employer, to do under the asbestos regulations. It must:
- identify the asbestos in the school buildings;
- compile a written inventory;
- inform health and safety representatives;
- inform any person who will be doing work at the school or is likely to disturb the asbestos;
- regularly assess the condition of the asbestos containing structures; and
- maintain the asbestos in a good state of repair or remove it if necessary.
The GDE has not compiled inventories or maintenance plans for any of the 243 schools it has listed as entirely or partially made of asbestos, said the department’s spokesperson, Oupa Bodibe.
“The department does not have the required capacity to compile the required inventory. However, we are in the process of acquiring additional capacity to deal with issues of this nature,” he said.
Make sure people know where the asbestos is
In a research report published in 2013, Dr Phillips and other researchers at the NIOH described how they had analysed 45 samples taken from South African school buildings between 2003 and 2012 and found asbestos fibres in nearly three-quarters of those samples, it also found asbestos in three of five air filters submitted from education buildings.
“Those schools found to have buildings that contain asbestos should have warning notices placed in prominent places in the event of any refurbishment, reconstruction or demolition that might otherwise be undertaken without this knowledge and without adhering to the asbestos regulations,” the researchers recommended in their report.
Anyone who carries out demolition work on a building that contains asbestos has to be registered with the Department of Labour, according to the asbestos regulations, and there are strict regulations about how asbestos is disposed of.
Khume Ramulifho, the Democratic Alliances’s “shadow education MEC” in Gauteng, who has visited many of the schools on the GDE’s asbestos lists, said he had not seen signs on any school buildings warning that they contained asbestos.
Policy for the management of asbestos in schools
The United Kingdom’s health department looked into the potential harm caused to children by asbestos exposure. Like South Africa, asbestos was used in the construction of many British schools until it was banned there in 1999.
Although its report stated that there was no “conclusive evidence of the relative risks of asbestos exposure in a school setting”, it concluded that “due to their longer life expectancy and the long latency period for the disease to develop, children have an increased life-time risk of developing mesothelioma compared to adults if exposed to given doses of asbestos”.
Mesothelioma takes about 30 years to develop after exposure to asbestos fibres, according to the World Health Organisation.
Asbestos regulations in the UK are similar to those in South Africa in that they require a “duty holder” to create a register of asbestos-containing materials present in a building and write a management plan that details how the condition of those materials will be monitored.
In 2015, the UK’s education department reviewed its policy on the management of asbestos in schools and in its report stated: “The employer should also provide adequate information, instruction and training for any members of school staff, including teachers, likely to disturb asbestos and ensure all school staff, and contractors are aware of the location of asbestos in the building,”
The department also decided to carry out air sampling in schools to better understand the levels of asbestos children could be exposed to, and to develop better and more targeted guidance on asbestos management in schools.
Schools in the United States also have to develop and maintain asbestos management plans, according to regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The GDE was asked whether it had a policy in place to deal with the maintenance of schools that contain asbestos. “The department is planning to replace all asbestos classrooms over time,” replied Bodibe.
The GDE “continuously does condition assessments to determine all infrastructure intervention required at schools constructed from inappropriate material”, he added.