Lessons in buildings made of asbestos

Prolonged exposure to asbestos can cause serious diseases, including cancer. Though its effects have been known for decades, and the European Union prohibited its use on January 1, 2005, hundreds of Greek children will be in close contact with asbestos at school. More than 500 Greek schools are either made wholly or partly of asbestos. No action has been made to remove the substance and most of those schools will open tomorrow. Since 2004, according to the School Buildings Organization (OSK), asbestos has been found in 740 schools and has been removed from 236 of them so far. Many more remain to be inspected. The worst problem is in small schools, mainly primary and nursery schools, which were built almost entirely of asbestos; 35 of them have been demolished to make way for new schools but work has not started on another 37. Panayiotis Pataryias, managing director of OSK and an associate professor at the University of the Peloponnese, said work started on removing asbestos only a year ago. «For 25 years, nobody dealt with the problem, even though we knew it was an extremely dangerous substance. We also lost time making checks on documentation, on-site inspections, formulating conditions for its safe removal and informing prefects and mayors. But now we have the experience and the work is progressing quickly.» Removal of asbestos from schools is budgeted at 50 million euros, a high price because the substance cannot be disposed of safely here and the state is paying to ship it to Germany. That costs about 40 euros a square meter and 1.50 euros a kilo for transport to safe landfills in Germany. Nikos Kleisiotis, director of a company that specializes in removing asbestos from buildings, says the process was started without national planning, «unless the asbestos is documented first, the job won’t be done properly. The authorities have taken the easy route of assigning the task to their staff, so that often not even elementary safety precautions are taken.» Injuries at school Injuries at school are common, around 50,000 of them a year, according to the Athens Medical School’s Accident Research and Prevention Center, headed by Elena Petridou. Of those injuries, 70 percent are incurred in the schoolyard (which is also where seven in 10 fractures occur), 10 percent in classrooms and 7 percent on the stairs. The prime causes are crowding, limited space, inadequate supervision due to lack of staff, unsuitable surfaces (asphalt, cement) and unsuitable infrastructure (broken desks, slippery floors, lack of safety railings). Intensive supervision by teachers, keeping records of injuries and briefing staff and pupils on danger spots are ways to reduce the injury rate, Agis Terzidis, who works with the center, told Kathimerini. To avoid accidents on the way to and from school, the Treating Children’s Injuries group advises parents to: – Accompany children under 8 to and from school or the school bus, making sure they walk on the inner side of the pavement. – Dress children in light-colored or reflective clothing to make them visible to drivers at night. – Teach children to obey the school crossing supervisor. – Make sure children who cycle to school wear a helmet and that their bicycle is in good condition (with mirrors and lights).