An investigation conducted by Palatinate has found that Durham University accommodation contains over 1264 cases of asbestos. 74 accommodation buildings across 10 different colleges were found to contain asbestos during audits conducted in 2016 and again in 2021.
Freedom of Information data from Durham University revealed of the recorded cases, 214 of the cases of asbestos were given a material score of 10 or above – this accounts for 19% of all the asbestos recorded in college accommodation buildings.
The UK Government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regulation marks the material score of asbestos out of 12. The material score assesses the condition of the asbestos, between 10 and 12 is considered “as having a high potential to release fibres and therefore hazardous”.
The UK registered charity, Asthma and Lung UK, state on their website that: “If asbestos inside buildings remains intact, it poses very little risk. It’s only when it’s damaged or disturbed that tiny asbestos fibres can be released into the air and enter your lungs when breathing. Breathing in asbestos fibres can damage your lungs and their lining.” It is estimated by HSE that 5000 deaths a year in the UK are caused by asbestos.
In a statement to Palatinate, a Durham University spokesperson said: “We recognise and act on our responsibilities under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and have full confidence in the asbestos safety of our accommodation buildings.”
The University has also recently been given a 5* rating in an audit by the British Safety Council.
In analysis of the data, it was found that Trevelyan College contained the most cases of asbestos, with 318 cases of asbestos recorded within the college’s main building. Van Mildert College’s main building contained the second most, with the college’s main building containing 89 cases of asbestos.
Van Mildert College also contained the block with the highest proportion of asbestos considered “hazardous”. Derwent Building contains 36 cases of asbestos, with 26 of these cases having a material score of over 10.
College of St Hild and St Bede contained the second most cases of asbestos, with 215 cases across the accommodation buildings on the main site. This was followed by Van Mildert College which contained 149 cases and University (Castle) College which contained 104 cases.
St Mary’s College contained 99 cases, St Cuthbert’s Society contained 95 cases and Collingwood College, with the third least cases of asbestos at 88. St Aidan’s College had the second least amount with 78 cases, with Hatfield containing only 21 cases.
The audits received by Palatinate through the Freedom of Information request contained assessments of the material score of almost all recorded asbestos. Not including data which did not have a material score, in 2016 27% of asbestos was ranked as between 1 and 3, 42% was ranked between 4 and 6. Only 8% of cases were ranked as between 7 and 9, while 23% were ranked between 10 and 12 and therefore have a “high potential to release fibres” and “hazardous”.
In 2021, while the cases of asbestos ranked as 1 to 3 rose to 29%, the amount between 4 and 6 fell by 12% to only 30%. Further, the two highest categories of material score rose, with cases between 7 and 9 rising to 12% and the amount considered “hazardous” rose to 29%.
Around 404 cases of asbestos that were given a material score in the 2016 audit were not reassessed within the 2021 audit, despite the data from 2016 marking all 404 cases as needing to be reinspected in 2021. The only explicit record of asbestos removal in the data was at Grey College’s Oswald Block – nine cases of asbestos were confirmed as having been removed between 2016 and 2021.
The data also revealed that an additional 167 cases of asbestos were recorded in 2021 only, with no scores being given in 2016. The use of asbestos in the UK was banned in 1999. A large majority of the newly discovered asbestos within college accommodation were assessed as having a high material score, often having a score of 10 and above.
The University did not comment regarding inaccuracy in this data.
The UK Government’s Health and Safety Executive regulation assesses the danger of asbestos out of 24: marks out of 12 for the material score and marks out of 12 for the priority score. In the Freedom of Information data provided to Palatinate, there was no indication of assessment of priority score. The priority score helps to assess the asbestos in relation to “normal occupant activity” and uses measures of “likelihood of disturbance, human exposure potential and maintenance activity”.
The data instead included generalised comments about the location of the asbestos. Some of these locations included: ”toilet cistern”, “loose lying debris to the floor” in some accommodation blocks and “putty for window panels”. Other locations were more cryptic, such as “void below floor” in South Bailey college accommodation.
Further, some additional comments were included in the data that indicated possibly more cases of asbestos in buildings, with one comment stating “also possible asbestos cement window sills to internal and external throughout – witnessed in stairwells” and another said “possible cement window sills throughout”. The data contained no indication of the measures that had been taken to verify these comments and there was no data connected to these comments.
The UK government’s Health and Safety Executive states “Asbestos is only a risk to health if asbestos fibres are released into the air and breathed in.”
The statement to Palatinate stated “We recognise and act on our responsibilities under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and have full confidence in the asbestos safety of our accommodation buildings.
“We have a comprehensive Asbestos Management Plan that provides systems to identify potential asbestos containing materials, assess any risk and identify appropriate management and mitigation measures.
“In areas where asbestos containing materials are in good condition, encapsulated (enclosed), or where they are bonded into materials such as resins (toilet cisterns, floor tiles) or putties (around windows), managing the asbestos containing material in-situ is the right course of action to take.
“Before undertaking any works that present a potential risk of disturbing asbestos containing materials, we assess risk and agree suitable mitigation strategies.”
The University’s website states for emergency circumstances: “If you think you have inadvertently disturbed, or you are concerned that a third party has disturbed materials that may contain asbestos, vacate/lock the area and contact Estates and Facilities.”
Image: Chris Ray