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Students sleeping with asbestos

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Students living in managed accommodation at 38 universities across the UK have slept in rooms containing asbestos in the last year.

An investigation by the Guardian revealed over 17,000 students have lived in such halls, and that many of them were not made aware of it.

2,313 bedrooms at the University of Warwick and at least 1,500 at Cardiff were affected, with students being left in the dark about their potential exposure to the now-banned carcinogenic building substance.

Speaking to the Guardian, a spokesman for Warwick University said: "The material containing asbestos in these rooms is fully sealed and completely safe, fully in line with all statutory requirements and good practice. We have a range of systems in place to ensure any damage in student accommodation is dealt with promptly, including a very active residential warden and tutor scheme."

While all universities have management plans in place for asbestos containing materials (ACM), several have admitted that they do not tell students of its presence.

Left undisturbed, the material is harmless, but damaged asbestos can cause fatal illnesses including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis, with the World Health Organisation figures putting deaths at 100,000 a year through exposure to asbestos, including 4,500 annually in the UK.

Out of 88 universities that responded to the Guardian’s questions about asbestos, 38 confirmed they are providing rooms for students that contain asbestos.

A statement from the Health and Safety Executive, a public body concerned with workplace safety, read: "All universities must ensure they have effective arrangements in place to manage the risks so that staff and students are not exposed to asbestos fibres. As long as asbestos is managed in compliance with the legal requirements and according to the HSE's published guidance, there is no significant risk in leaving it in place."

Students living in accommodation blocks built from 1950 to the mid-1980s are most likely to be sleeping close to asbestos in walls, ceilings or floors, where it has not been fully removed, such was its prevalence in building work carried out in the second half of the 20th century.

Modern student accommodation built since 2000 is unlikely to contain asbestos as new laws in 1985 and 2000 outlawed it as a building material because of its carcinogenic properties.

Universities have urged students to report any damage in their halls to accommodation management, but most may do so unaware that they have been exposed to asbestos fibres which are undetectable to the naked eye and most microscopes.

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