Asbestos: Cwmcarn High School could reopen after scare

Members of the Welsh assembly members were meeting on Tuesday to discuss the threat of asbestos in schools

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Hopes are growing that a high school which closed last year following fears over asbestos could reopen.

Cwmcarn High School in Caerphilly county closed in October after a report said asbestos posed a threat to health.

But the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says it is an "essentially uncontaminated school" after new tests.

Meanwhile, members of the Welsh assembly members will meet later on Tuesday to discuss the threat of asbestos in schools.

Arwyn Jones, BBC Wales education correspondent

Two asbestos reports, and two very different conclusions.

Back in October last year, a report commissioned by Caerphilly council effectively closed down Cwmcarn High School.

The reason? Claims that asbestos levels were 10 times higher than they should be which could be dangerous.

Fast forward to Monday. The Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) report is published.

It comes to a very different conclusion - that the danger from the asbestos is very low, that the school is essentially uncontaminated.

So how can two reports come to such different conclusions? It all comes down to how they collected samples from the school.

The HSE says the method of the original survey - by the firm Santia - can overestimate the levels of asbestos.

It does that because it cannot distinguish between asbestos fibres and other fibres such as paper, clothing and skin cells.

The company did not want to make a comment, and the council, along with the school, has commissioned another survey.

Santia says it will be responsible for this survey too, but the council were unavailable to confirm that.

Either way, it is going to take three weeks before it reports back.

Only then will the council and school decide on a course of action.

The cross-party group is chaired by Conservative AM Nick Ramsay, who has backed a "right to know" campaign to create an online database about levels of asbestos in all Welsh schools.

It would include information about all school buildings and be available for anyone to search.

Michael Imperato, a solicitor who is part of the campaign, told BBC Radio Wales: "Confusion is the word I would use, because if I was a parent or a teacher at Cwmcarn, where do you stand now?

"One minute we're saying the school has to be closed and the children bussed 12 miles up the valley and the next we're hearing today everything is okay, perhaps it can reopen.

"This illustrates exactly the point of the right to know campaign.

"People should be better informed, should be able to find out what the position is in their schools and then they can start to make informed choices and start to ask the right questions of local authorities, of school governors, of head teachers.

"It just empowers people to know a bit more about what's going on in something which is very important."

In October, Education Minister Leighton Andrews announced that all schools must deliver reports on asbestos levels after Cwmcarn was closed following testing.

The report by Santia Asbestos Management Limited had said airborne fibres at the 900-pupil school were 10 times higher than the accepted levels.

'Council acted appropriately'

However, on Monday it was revealed that a new report carried out on behalf of HSE by the Health and Safety Laboratory - which carries out scientific research - indicated that the risk to pupils and teachers at Cwmcarn was low.

"Having made both visual checks of the fabric and considering the results of the HSL testing, HSE believes it is an essentially uncontaminated school," said HSE.

"However, any decision on whether it should reopen rests with the school governors. It is their choice whether to use the HSL report in any decision making."

HSE said the method of testing carried out by Santia could "overestimate the levels of asbestos fibres as it does not distinguish between asbestos fibres and other fibres such as paper, clothing and skin cells".

But HSE added: "The council acted appropriately in closing the school, given the advice contained in the report they commissioned at the time."

The council and school have asked for a further survey but it will be three weeks before any decision is made.

Students are currently being educated 12 miles away at Coleg Gwent's Ebbw Vale campus.

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