Asbestos concerns rise as affected schools close

One of the closed schools in České Budějovice, photo: CTK

The city hall in České Budějovice closed three primary schools in a housing estate this week after health workers discovered the presence of carcinogenic asbestos. While teachers attempt to create alternative plans for the several hundred students, asbestos concerns have returned to the public awareness nationwide, and health officials warn that many more public buildings may carry the same risks.

One of the closed schools in České Budějovice,  photo: CTK
Where there are cheaply produced prefabricated buildings from the 1970s and 80s there are worries of asbestos – which stick in the lungs like hooks and can bring cancer or other ailments even many years after the fact. Now many of these buildings are being reconstructed, which causes the fibres to be released anew. An inspection of schools in the South Bohemian centre of České Budějovice this week resulted in the closure of three primary schools serving hundreds of students. The teachers are continuing work under provisional conditions but only for a few days, after which time an “asbestos holiday” will take effect and the city council is working on crisis scenarios.

Most worryingly, the three schools closed were the three schools tested – chosen for inspection because they were reinsulated in the summer. The students there may thus have been breathing asbestos for three months already (though the problem was in fact confined to certain rooms). How many more institutions could be posing health risks is impossible to estimate. Since September and the end of the renovation season, four schools in Prague also had to move students elsewhere due to asbestos concerns, as did one nursery in Česká Lípa, north of Prague. The country’s chief medical officer, Michal Vít, is ordering inspections in all schools built during the 1970s and 80s that have recently undergone renovations.

And the problem by no means extends only to schools. There are thousands of hospitals, administrative offices and residences around the country that were built during the same era using the same materials. Health care officials note that such buildings pose no hazard so long as the panels are left undisturbed. But the Czech Republic’s reliance on these millions of spaces is such that they must be refurbished rather than rebuilt, and that refurbishment means disturbing the asbestos insulation panels that were standard issue at the time.

Prefabricated buildings can be reconstructed safely, but at no small cost. The asbestos panels must be removed according to very strict procedure. And because their removal is so demanding in terms of time, money and worker safety, companies often skirt the rules, and the buildings users are not the only victims of poor practices. Workers should be dressed in overalls and breathing masks; a protective zone is to be set out around the construction site. Nonetheless, the daily Mladá fonta Dnes cites residents who have observed much different procedures – foreign workers dressed only to the waist using hydraulic drills while nearby schools windows were open.

Asbestos is unseen, and therefore inestimably disregarded. Anyone with a trade licence for removing hazardous substances can be hired to remove the asbestos panels – once appreciated around Europe and the world for their unique properties of insulation and fireproofing. The common effects of contact however include lung disease and shortness of breath in the better case scenario, and tumours and other little-researched problems of the respiratory system. Puzzlingly, people who have not been exposed directly to asbestos have come down with symptoms of asbestos-related diseases through contact with first-person exposures.