The Growing Problem of RAAC and Asbestos
Of course, for anyone who has ever been responsible for a building in which asbestos is present, and who has been diligent in managing the risks that asbestos fibres can pose, the latest stories about RAAC have a saddening air of déjà vu about them.
- 1 Major UK newspaper continues its asbestos campaign, as RAAC also takes the spotlight
- 2 How, exactly, does the existence of RAAC in a school building elevate the asbestos risk?
- 3 School leaders have found themselves in a variety of challenging situations on RAAC and asbestos
- 4 RAAC and asbestos will present a stiff test for building managers going well beyond schools
Much of the worry about RAAC has arisen due to engineers’ ever-more urgent warnings that the material, which was used in construction from around the 1950s to the 1980s, can become unstable once its expected 30-year lifespan is exceeded.
This, combined with several incidents over the summer involving RAAC – including a sudden collapse at a commercial property in Wales, a RAAC beam slipping at an educational institution in Scotland, and a ceiling falling in a school in England – has sparked an escalation of concern.
Luckily, no one was hurt in any of those three incidents. However, they alerted officials to the prospect that even schools that had previously been determined to be “non-critical” could now be at risk of sudden collapse – hence, a wave of abrupt school closures.
It is therefore becoming apparent that both RAAC and asbestos are issues in UK schools that are likely to necessitate proactive, careful, and informed management for many years, and possibly decades, to come.
But what are some of the risks relating to both asbestos and RAAC that those responsible for all manner of buildings in the UK – not merely schools – need to know about? And what does the picture look like with regard to the longer-term management of these materials in such premises?
Major UK newspaper continues its asbestos campaign, as RAAC also takes the spotlight
One of the reasons why we are writing about both RAAC and asbestos here at Oracle Solutions, is the fact that the Sunday Times newspaper has recently been campaigning for the Government to put in place a “proactive phased removal of asbestos” from UK buildings.
And of course, the issues of asbestos and RAAC in schools are hardly completely separate issues, overlapping in more respects than one. Indeed, in an article published on 3rd September 2023, the newspaper cited multiple experts as warning that asbestos could be exposed in schools where the now-notorious crumbling concrete is also a problem.
As regular readers of Oracle Solutions’ online Learning Centre articles will already know, asbestos presents enough of a headache on its own to those who are responsible for managing, maintaining, and repairing school buildings.
Diseases that are believed to be caused by asbestos exposure – such as mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer – continue to kill about 5,000 people a year in the UK, despite the importation and use of the material in this country having been banned since 1999.
Such still-high numbers of deaths can be partly attributed to the long latency period that asbestos-related disease is known to have. Or to put it another way, many of the cases of asbestos-related disease that are being diagnosed right now, will be attributable to instances of asbestos exposure that took place prior to the 1999 ban.
However, it is also true that fresh instances of asbestos ingestion and inhalation can, and do, still occur. The use of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in construction and other industries might have been outlawed for more than a generation now, but many buildings up and down the UK still contain the substance. And in the event of ACMs being disturbed, asbestos fibres can be subsequently released into the air, and inhaled or swallowed by someone nearby.
These factors have led The Sunday Times to conclude that from a public health perspective, it is not sufficient for the UK to continue with its current regime of leaving asbestos in place in buildings around the country.
After all, the risk that is presented by any given ACMs does not necessarily remain the same over time. The materials themselves can be at risk of deteriorating – thereby increasing the likelihood of asbestos fibres being released and presenting new health risks.
And that is before one considers the additional factor of RAAC. According to the newspaper, experts have said that the presence of RAAC in a particular building also pushes up the risk of someone being exposed to asbestos. So, the issues of asbestos and RAAC are very much closely intertwined as far as the management of UK school buildings is concerned.
How, exactly, does the existence of RAAC in a school building elevate the asbestos risk?
With both asbestos and RAAC having been widely used in the postwar construction boom of the mid-to-late 20th century – as The Sunday Times pointed out – it is a safe bet that in many cases, RAAC and asbestos will exist in the same buildings.
And both materials, with their now well-documented respective risks, will require proactive and sensible management. Such management will require time and resources that are not in great supply for many UK schools right now.
A relatively obvious example of how the risks of RAAC and asbestos might interact, is if a classroom roof made from the “Aero bar” concrete suddenly collapses. In this situation, fibres could be released that lead to someone in the vicinity – such as teachers and/or pupils – developing a condition such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis in later life.
Indeed, the newspaper cited engineers as saying that even the mere act of assessing and/or removing RAAC panels could cause asbestos disturbance.
School leaders have found themselves in a variety of challenging situations on RAAC and asbestos
For its article, The Sunday Times also quoted several people who helped to illustrate the complexity of managing premises where RAAC and asbestos dangers co-exist.
One of those observers was Matt Byatt, the Institution of Structural Engineers president, who said it would be a complicated process even merely to assess the state of concrete in educational buildings. He said that in settings presenting a risk of asbestos disturbance, ACMs must “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.”
The Sunday Times’ report also included expressions of concern on the subject from several people within affected schools. For example, Caroline Evans – head teacher at Leicester’s Parks Primary – stated that both RAAC and asbestos had been found at her school.
The article added that the situation had forced Ms Evans to relocate her establishment’s 485 pupils to an office block and a children’s centre. She voiced her fear that there may be a need to demolish the old school building, explaining: “They have to take off the whole roof and they are looking at replacing it, but if I was a betting lady, I think they will knock down the whole school. It is not just RAAC, there is subsidence too.”
The situation described by Ms Evans sadly seems all too typical of those faced by a range of authority figures managing schools at the moment. The Times cited another school leader, working for an east-England academy trust with three RAAC-affected schools, who said that pupils would be taught in a “rotation system” of shifts, whereby at any one time, some would be classroom-based, and others would be kept at home for online lessons.
That same school leader claimed that asbestos was a further problem, with £1 million having already been spent on removing the dangerous substance across the trust’s schools. The Sunday Times said that engineers were now having another look over the asbestos surveys, trying to determine whether the substance was also present in the roofs where RAAC had been identified.
The Department for Education (DfE), too, is well aware of how asbestos-related risks can interact with those posed by RAAC. As recently as December, it had set out guidance to school manufacturers, warning them to “take particular care” when undertaking inspections of RAAC roofs, due to the potential existence of ACMs in ceiling voids. The department said that in some situations, Artex coatings – which contain asbestos – might have even been applied to aerated concrete planks.
The task facing schools in managing RAAC would possibly be easier if they were already thoroughly on top of their asbestos management responsibilities.
Sadly, it seems that in too many cases, this has not been so; a report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in July disclosed that about a third of the schools it had inspected over the course of a year had been warned of “non-compliance” with regard to their legal duty to undertake effective asbestos management. The report said that inspectors frequently discovered cases of schools lacking an up-to-date survey indicating where asbestos was present on their site.
RAAC and asbestos will present a stiff test for building managers going well beyond schools
One of the most worrying things of all about the combined RAAC and asbestos risks, is that it is hardly only educational institutions that have considerable reason to be concerned about them.
As pointed out by Adrian Tagg – associate professor of building surveying at the University of Reading – in The Sunday Times’ article, the NHS has known for years that RAAC is present in its hospitals, and the substance was also likely to be contained within other public-sector buildings, such as police stations and courts. In fact, he stated, “any flat-roofed public-sector building built in about 30 years from the 1950s could potentially include it.”
That could mean such buildings as libraries and doctors’ surgeries also containing possibly dangerous asbestos and RAAC. It is a proverbial “can that has been kicked down the road” for far too long – and now, it seems that ministers, building managers, and the broader public are coming to discover those risks the hard way.
Are you in need of asbestos management, consultancy, and/or removal services that will help provide peace of mind in relation to the site for which you are responsible? If so, please do not wait any longer to enquire to the Oracle Solutions team to learn more about our licensed and accredited asbestos solutions and know-how.
Written by Jess Scott
Jess Scott has been an all-round asbestos consultant since 1996. That’s nearly 3 decades of asbestos knowledge. He spends his time sharing that knowledge with the team at Oracle and with their clients. Jess's goal is, and always has been, to use my expertise in helping people to comply with the law. This legal compliance ultimately helps to protect everyone from the harmful effects of asbestos. Jess has acted as an asbestos expert witness in legal cases and is involved in many asbestos educational activities throughout the UK.