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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 18 May 1993

Vol. 430 No. 8

Adjournment Debate. - Dunshaughlin (Meath) Community College.

Approximately 1,000 students, staff and others use Dunshaughlin Community College regularly. A recent study by an environmental consultant from Great Britain showed that significant quantities of asbestos were found in the atmosphere and in dust particles on surfaces in the college. In particular a trace element of chrysotile and a medium level of amosite were found to be present. Those test results confirm that asbestos is present in the school and that a hazard exists. The major hazard from asbestos is extremely serious — the inhalation of fibres which cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, both potentially fatal diseases. The consultant stated that without further investigation he cannot assess the likelihood that the presence of asbestos will result in such diseases in students or staff in the college. However, he stated that there is no known threshold level of exposure to asbestos below which there is no risk. That is a very serious statement.

Asbestos was used in the building of Dunshaughlin Community College in the seventies. It was used in five other schools at that time also and in many other buildings in the sixties and seventies. The problem did not arise from its use at that time but from the dust discharged into the atmosphere when the asbestos was being removed during the summer of 1992. The college was reopened in September 1992 after Eolas, who was employed by the contractors, stated that this college was clear of asbestos. Eolas was not an independent body; it was paid by the contractors. Furthermore, the certificate indicating that the school was clear of asbestos by Eolas was not seen by the teachers and has been contradicted by the survey to which I referred. That survey was conducted in May, many months after the work was completed last September. It has transpired that the tests carried out by Eolas at the time were of undisturbed air. Apparently, this is not the correct testing method.

Under MDHS 39/3 standards, tests for asbestos presence should be carried out in disturbed air. In other words, there should be a normal amount of agitation and movement in the room to rise dust up into the atmosphere where it is capable of being inhaled. That level of disturbance was not done while Eolas was carrying out its tests. It was done when the British consultants carried out their testing and as a result they found asbestos present in hazardous quantities while the Eolas test did not. There is also the question of whether Eolas staff were present when the contractors did the work, or did they come along afterwards and carry out a test? I understand that, under Statutory Instrument 34 of 1989, they are required to be present while consultants carry out their work.

This is a very serious matter and of great concern to the teachers. The teachers are not satisfied that the Department of Education is handling the matter adequately. The Department proposes that Eolas staff will carry out another test next week. However, given that Eolas carried out tests last September that were demonstrated to have been incorrect and given that they have a contractual and commercial relationship with the contractor, the teachers and staff are not satisfied that it should be the body to carry out the independent test on this occasion. The teachers demand on behalf of the students and themselves that the premises be thoroughly cleaned, tested and certified by competent independent agencies, not Eolas. They request that a register of all persons who were allowed use the school last September be drawn up and that those exposed persons be provided with a free annual medical test.

There is a number of serious questions arising from what I have described. Are Eolas's procedures adequate for dealing with this problem? This issue does not relate to just Dunshaughlin; it is likely to arise in respect of many other buildings, not all schools, where this type of material may be removed in future. Why was the school allowed to be opened last September? Was there nobody in the Department of Education capable of looking over the tests and saying they were not carried out in a fashion that is satisfactory? What guarantees will be given in regard to the health of the people concerned? Who will be financially liable for putting the matter right? It is suggested that the vocational education committee may be asked to do this, but it was the Department of Education who in 1977 specified that this material be used. The vocational education committee did not design the school; therefore it would be unfair to ask it to deal with the matter. There is also the question of liability in the event of anybody suing. Who will be liable in such a case? These are serious questions that must be asked.

It is sad that this issue is coming to a head at a time when students are concerned about their exams. There are two teaching weeks left and the students and staff should be concentrating on examinations and not worrying about asbestos. I am surprised that no officials are present for this debate to provide the Minister with any supplementary information on questions which I have raised and of which he may not have notice. I hope the Minister will be able to provide comprehensive answers to the questions I have raised, because this is a serious matter and must be dealt with quickly.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it gives me an opportunity to clarify the position. I share the Deputy's concern in regard to this matter because before my entry to politics I was involved in the building industry and trade and I have experience of damage that may be caused by asbestos dust.

Firstly, I would like to outline the background to this matter. When Dunshauglin Community College was built asbestos panels were used in certain areas of the building. Because of concerns about this material the Department sought advice from Eolas and, on receipt of its report, it was decided that while there is no immediate risk, it would be preferable to remove the panels in question from the school. The work was carried out in the summer of 1992 by a specialist firm in compliance with the relevant legislation. Eolas was engaged as an independent assessor to ensure that the prescribed standards were met, to approve disposal arrangements and to carry out clearance tests on completion of the works. On completion of the contract the buildings were cleared as satisfactory.

However, concerns have been expressed about the continuing presence of asbestos particles in some areas of the school and because of this my Department is arranging, in consultation with the vocational education committee, for further investigations to be carried out this coming Saturday, 22 May, to establish whether there is a problem.

I accept that the Deputy has made a valid point in relation to proper testing procedures and the disturbance of dust. It is important that testing be carried out to the strictest criteria and I understand that will be done and the points raised by the Deputy will be dealt with.

The testing procedure will be agreed with the vocational education committee and its consultant architect and if the asbestos levels are found to be above prescribed limits, the areas in question will be closed, decontaminated and retested until cleared. On completion of this work a clearance certificate for the entire school will be issued.

I wish to assure the Deputy that because of dangers associated with this material, I am anxious to eliminate any possible risk to the pupils and staff of Dunshaughlin Community College. Therefore, if it is found that the levels are above the prescribed limits, any work necessary to deal with the problem will be carried out immediately.

Finally, I would like to stress that every effort will be made to ensure that there are no further doubts about the safety of the building and to allay any fears parents or staff may have.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 May 1993.