Secondary schools across the UK are starting the new school year with a warning not to use their stock of heatproof mats used with Bunsen burners after the HSE discovered that two major suppliers had illegally sold mats containing asbestos.
The HSE and education officials are currently working to identify the customers of two UK laboratory supply companies that sold gauze mats containing asbestos in breach of EU REACH regulations, with a warning that “enforcement action may follow”.
But because it is impossible to tell which mats contain asbestos and which pose no risk, the HSE is advising schools and colleges not to handle, use or move metal gauze mats until their certification can be checked with suppliers, or a laboratory test gives them the all-clear.
All schools are being advised to not to move mats from drawers or cupboards “then seal them with tape”.
The customers of the two suppliers are due to be contacted this week, according to HSE and CLEAPSS, the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services.
The metal gauze mats, placed on tripods above Bunsen burners during science lessons, have a white heat-resistant pad at the centre. The presence of tremolite asbestos, in the range of 20-30% of the heat-resistant material, was discovered after testing.
Tremolite, which has needle-like fibres, is considered as toxic as chrysotile or white asbestos, the most common form of asbestos in the UK and worldwide. It is generally found as a contaminant when other minerals, such as vermiculite, are mined.
Typically, suppliers sell mats made of “asbesto-free calcium silicate”. While it is a common alternative to asbestos, many products made of calcium silicate have historically been found to be contaminated.
“We are working closely with Department for Education, education departments in Scotland and Wales as well as the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services. This will help us ensure that schools, colleges, local regulators, and others who may have supplied or purchased similar products are directed to our advice”
The alert was first raised by a school that identified the presence of asbestos in its mats during an asbestos survey. When the school ordered replacements, it had them tested by a laboratory accredited by the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS), revealing that the new mats also contained asbestos.
The school contacted the HSE, which responded with an investigation by its Chemical Regulation Division, which is responsible for enforcing the EU regulation on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH).
While the import of all asbestos products has been banned in the UK since 1999, the adoption of the EU-wide REACH regime in 2008 means that the most up-to-date legislation on the import and supply of asbestos are the REACH Enforcement Regulations 2008.
According to its website, CLEAPPS expects its helpline to be very busy during the first week of the new school year, and it is urging schools not to call before studying all the guidance available online.
According to the guidance, the risk to health is low, as any fibres or particles from damaged mats are unlikely to become airborne. The HSE does not consider the situation to be reportable under RIDDOR, and, if schools decide to inform parents, the guidance suggests that they should take a “reassuring” stance.
However, CLEAPSS tells teachers and technicians to stop using all gauzes then to “prevent access to cupboards or drawers where gauzes are stored by sealing them securely with tape”.
To dispose of mats, “trays of gauzes from open storage could be removed from labs, double-bagged and stored securely.”
For further advice on this or any Asbestos concerns contact TEAM Safety Services.