EXCLUSIVE

Illustration: Matt Golding.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

Parents, teachers and principals have called for the wide-scale removal of asbestos in Victorian schools, as state government audits reveal many buildings need the toxic material cleaned up immediately.

Documents seen by Fairfax Media also reveal that the amount of funding to manage asbestos has plunged in recent years, from $14.3 million between 2007-10 to $1.8 million in 2011-12.

About two-thirds of Victoria’s 1531 public schools contain asbestos, and the documents show that many of the schools have so-called ”Priority 1” problems – where asbestos could be of ”substantial risk” unless it was immediately removed, sealed or labelled.

But while the government insists students are safe, it could not categorically say if each school had adequately dealt with the asbestos, as required under department guidelines, because there is no central register.

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Education Minister Martin Dixon said parents had nothing to fear. ”The safety of students and staff in our schools comes first,” he said. ”We have a comprehensive system in place that includes expert training, detailed asbestos management plans and a hotline that schools can call to get an immediate site inspection and, where appropriate, have the asbestos removed.”

But schools contacted by Fairfax Media painted the picture of an ad-hoc system where asbestos had been removed or sealed off in some cases, but may not have been properly addressed in others.

The education union and principal groups also say safety breaches occasionally occur, as it was up to individual schools to make sure they comply with their own asbestos management plans.

“It isn’t ideal,” said Victorian Principals Association president Gabrielle Leigh. ”It would be better if the asbestos was removed altogether, but schools can’t afford to remove it themselves.”

The documents were released under Freedom of Information laws to former Labor policy adviser Andrew Herington, and come only days after reports of asbestos not being properly disposed of by workers building the National Broadband Network. They also show:

■ Between 2006 and 2008, 2775 audits for asbestos and other hazardous material was undertaken in schools, but during 2011 and 2012 only 47 new asbestos audits were completed.

■ Asbestos works in 2010-11 included the removal of asbestos in ceilings and eaves at Drouin Secondary College and Balwyn North Primary; the removal of overgrown trees in a “contaminated area” at Dingley Primary School; and an “urgent call out” at Albion North Primary School after dozens of pieces of asbestos were found.

■ A pilot program to examine different ways of labelling asbestos hazards in schools will not be implemented more broadly by the government.

Mr Herington said the government should conduct new audits on schools that had not been audited in the past five years, check that all the

recommended actions had been taken and ensure that any remaining asbestos sheeting was well painted and labelled.

While the risk of asbestos is relatively limited when it is dormant, fibres that become airborne can lead to diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Parents Victoria spokeswoman Gail McHardy said safety breaches sometimes occurred, so the department could not afford to be complacent. A few years ago, for example, contract workers at Geelong High School drilled a hole through walls containing asbestos that had not been labelled. In another case, WorkSafe was called in to Elsternwick High after a student picked up asbestos found at the school.

“Anything that presents a health hazard to children should be removed,” Ms McHardy said.

Australian Education Union vice-president Carolyn Clancy said the department should have a central register revealing where the asbestos is in each school, and embark on a program to get rid of it.

But department spokeswoman Vanessa O’Shaughnessy said the department already had a comprehensive program. Each school managed its own asbestos plan that showed where the asbestos was, she said, and the department conducted audits on an ongoing basis to check compliance. More than 300 audits would take place between April 2013 and June 2014.

”As part of the major capital works programs undertaken in 2011 and 2012, large amounts of asbestos were removed from Victorian schools and the costs were built into overall project costs,” she said.

Federally, a new national asbestos agency will oversee a two-stage prioritisation of asbestos removal by 2030, first in public infrastructure and then in private buildings and structures.