Asbestos plus lax government equals lives lost

1 February 2012

Asbestos plus lax government equals lives lost

Almost a year ago, on 16th February 2011, Secretary of State for Infrastructure and Environment Joop Atsma gave his word that by 1st July 2012 all schools built before 1994 would be expected to have drawn up an asbestos inventory, stating where on their premises asbestos was to be found and in what condition. The promise was made in reaction to the discovery that in 25% of schools in which such an inventory had already been performed, dangerous loose fibres of asbestos had been found to be present, meaning that immediate decontamination was necessary.

Paulus Jansen is environmental spokesman for the SP Parliamentary group.

Paulus JansenThis is the Secretary of State’s answer to my question on the issue, word-for-word: “I am indeed in agreement with him that everything possible must be done to have an inventory prepared by the middle of next year.” There are now five months to go, and today Parliament received, six weeks late, a letter giving the state of play. A surprise! “The envisaged deadline, to have all schools inventoried for asbestos by July, cannot in practice be met.” Nevertheless, Atsma pronounced himself satisfied because “a process has been set in motion for the inventory of school buildings.” It really says that!

What are the figures? More than 9,000 schools have been ordered to make an inventory, of which 5,100 have responded, leaving about 4,000 which have failed to do so. Even if a relatively large number of these schools were built after asbestos was banned in 1994, this leaves between 1,000 and 2,000 schools from the risk group who have avoided any form of check.

Of the schools which have cooperated, 4,000 fall into the risk category, and of these just 40% had had an inventory preformed by the beginning of November. Taking into account those schools which have failed to react, this means that the number which have complied with the obligatory inventory just five months before 1st July 2012 comes to only 25%. One in four!

In the 1,300 schools for which an inventory has been completed, 81% have been found to be affected by asbestos. 37% exhibited acute risk, where immediate decontamination was needed, yet in forty-three such schools this has not yet been carried out. Extrapolating from these figures to the schools in which no inventory has been performed, there are in the Netherlands around 1,400 schools in which an acute risk, involving loose fibres of asbestos, is present, without any action being taken.

I would expect the Secretary of State for the Environment to be in the highest state of alarm when confronted by such figures. But nothing could be further from the truth. Atsma is going to set up a website on which parents will be able to see whether their child’s school has already been investigated, and a helpdesk to which schools can put questions. For the rest, the schools will have to fend for themselves. “Either we do something about it or not,” said Prime Minister Mark Rutte, summing up the ‘new style’ government’s responsibility at the presentation of the coalition agreement. Obviously the problem of asbestos, now responsible for 1,100 deaths in the Netherlands per year, falls into the second category.

Next Thursday Parliament will debate Joop Atsma’s asbestos policy with him. The SP would like to see the life-threatening lack of commitment of the present approach give way as soon as possible to a compulsory inventory for all buildings constructed prior to 1994 which are accessible to people other than the owners. If acute risks have been discovered in 37% of the schools that have been looked at, why should the situation be any different in offices, shops and care homes?

Where asbestos inventories uncover acute risks, there should be a compulsory, short-term duty to decontaminate, with hefty penalties for non-compliance. Lastly, public control of the quality of asbestos removal firms must now at long last be taken seriously, instead of continuing to trust in the sector’s self-regulation.

An Environment Secretary should be doing more than distributing a glossy brochure and setting up a website. Asbestos is a furtive killer and a lax government is costing lives.

This article first appeared, in Dutch, on 31st January, 2012 in the national daily newspaper Trouw.

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