The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) says it may take the Gauteng education department to court over about 250 schools in the province still built entirely, or partially, with asbestos.
Hundreds of schools and other buildings in the province, dating back to the apartheid era, are built with the deadly material.
Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi recently confirmed in a written reply to a Democratic Alliance MP Khume Ramulifho that in addition to the 26 “asbestos schools” the department intended to replace within the next five years, there were about 240 schools which still had partial asbestos structures.
Asbestos became a banned material in South Africa in 2008.
Referring to the landmark ruling of the Eastern Cape High Court in Bisho, which clarified the department’s responsibility in meeting the norms and standards of school infrastructure, Sadtu secretary-general Mugwena Maluleke said it was concerning that despite the ruling, teachers and pupils were still subjected to unsafe buildings.
“In our last congress we said that such things should be taken to court where there is noncompliance with the health standards,” said Maluleke.
“The courts made it very clear what the department has to do so, as an organisation that stands for dignity and equality, we cannot allow a situation where some sit in offices that are air-conditioned while others are subjected to health hazards.
“We are entitled to, as an organisation, take the department to court for not ensuring compliance.”
In 2013, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga set the deadline for the eradication of asbestos schools for November 29, 2016.
A 2017 report by the National Institute for Occupational Health said asbestos structures in schools affected more than 25,000 pupils and nearly 700 teachers who attended these schools.
Lesufi’s spokesperson, Steve Mabona, repeated the MEC’s commitment to remove “all asbestos school within the next five years”.
Asbestosis is a type of pulmonary fibrosis, a condition in which the lung tissue becomes scarred over time. It is not a type of cancer, but asbestosis has the same cause as mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.
- According to a 2017 report by the National Institute for Occupational Health, asbestos becomes especially dangerous if the structure is damaged, exposing the asbestos fibres, which are able to disperse into the air. Inhaling these fibres could lead to serious respiratory diseases, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.
- Asbestosis is characterised by scarring in the lungs, leading to long-term breathing complications. It is caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos.
- Occupational health and safety regulations stipulate that “no employer or self-employed person shall require or permit any person to work in an environment in which he or she would be exposed to asbestos in excess of the prescribed occupational exposure limit”.
- According to the department of environmental affairs, the first wave of asbestos disease occurred in workers involved in the mining and milling of crude asbestos and in the manufacture of asbestos products.
- Adverse health effects from exposure to asbestos remains a serious concern to miners, the mining community and residents of buildings that contain asbestos, as well as in communities where the soil is contaminated with asbestos.