One in eight Gauteng school buildings contains asbestos, exposing hundreds of thousands of pupils and about 10,000 teachers to serious health risks. If these asbestos structures become dilapidated, fibres are released into the air. If they are inhaled, they can cause deadly respiratory diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.

Everest Primary School in Newclare, just west of Johannesburg’s CBD, is one of 29 schools in Gauteng listed for replacement by the province’s department of education because they are made of asbestos. They all should have been replaced by 29 November 2016, but none of them was. Everest is the only one where construction has started. The Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) is way behind schedule.The deadline was set in November 2013 when Minister of Education Angie Motshekga signed regulations stipulating the minimum infrastructure norms and standards that all South Africa’s public schools must meet.

The regulations stated that schools made of mud, wood, metal and asbestos had to be replaced with appropriate building materials within three years. No mud, wood or metal schools have been identified in Gauteng, just asbestos schools. Nearly two-thirds of the asbestos schools identified for replacement by the GDE are clustered in south-western Johannesburg, in an area that extends for roughly 15km from Newclare and Riverlea, down through Noordegsig, Orlando East and Pimville in Soweto, to Eldorado Park.

Six schools are scattered around Tshwane, one is in Ekurhuleni, two are in Randfontein, one is in Vereeniging, and two are in northern Johannesburg. Altogether, more than 25,000 learners and nearly 700 teachers attend these schools. But the 29 schools on the GDE’s replacement list are only a small part of the province’s asbestos problem. For some reason, the school infrastructure regulations distinguish between schools that are built “entirely of asbestos” and those that are built “partially of asbestos”.

Deciding which schools are entirely asbestos clearly isn’t a straightforward process. The GDE’s list has changed three times in the two years since it was first made public in June 2015, but only 15 schools have featured consistently on all the lists. The current list of 29 schools appears to have been settled on only towards the end of 2016. The list also has some strange omissions, a school like Noordgesig Secondary School in Soweto, which has 24 asbestos classrooms, but one brick-and-mortar building is not deemed to be entirely asbestos and therefore isn’t on the replacement list.

The important distinction in terms of the school infrastructure norms and standards is that by law “entirely asbestos” schools had to be replaced within three years of the regulations being adopted, but there is no deadline to replace partially asbestos schools. This distinction makes no sense to Equal Education, a non-governmental organisation that has been campaigning for years for legally binding norms and standards for school infrastructure.

“There is no rational basis for excluding an unsafe school or classroom from the ambit of the regulation, merely because part of the school is safe,” its spokesperson, Naadira Munshi, said.

“The province does have other schools that don’t fall into the three-year timeline, although they are partially built with asbestos,” said Oupa Bodibe, spokesperson for the GDE.

There are, in fact, 214 of them, according to a list compiled by the GDE, and most of them are clustered in townships, such as Soweto, Tembisa, Thokoza, Kathlehong, Vosloorus, Mamelodi and Hammanskraal. Assuming the GDE’s asbestos schools lists are accurate and complete, 243 of the just over 2,000 public schools in Gauteng contain asbestos. That’s about one in eight schools. This affects over 300,000 learners, two-thirds of whom are primary school children, and nearly 10,000 teachers, not to mention the non-teaching staff, according to numbers published on the 2016 school masterlist.

“There’s very little evidence that buildings made with material containing asbestos are dangerous to your health,” said Prof David Rees, the head of Occupational Medicine and Epidemiology at the NIOH and professor of occupational health at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Public Health.

“The problem comes when the asbestos-containing structures are in disrepair,” said Prof Rees.

The asbestos in school buildings is usually mixed with cement in the form of roof sheets and partition boards, for example. Friable, or crumbly, asbestos was used as insulation. The asbestos becomes a health risk if the sheets are damaged so the asbestos fibres are exposed and able to disperse into the air. It’s when tiny asbestos fibres are inhaled into the lungs that they can cause serious respiratory diseases, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.

“It’s usually during renovations, when people work on material that contains asbestos with power tools, that dust containing asbestos fibres is released into the air”, said Prof Jim Phillips, a specialist in the Pathology Unit of the NIOH.

Anyone in the vicinity who breathes in that dust can be put at risk.

Buildings that contain asbestos have to be demolished by specialist contractors registered by the Department of Labour. And asbestos waste has to be disposed of at hazardous waste sites. In 2001, the Department of Labour put in place asbestos regulations that require employers to compile written inventories of the asbestos in workplaces, as well as maintenance plans to ensure that asbestos structures are maintained in good condition, and that workers are not put at risk.

The GDE has not compiled inventories or maintenance plans for any of the 243 schools it has listed as entirely or partially made of asbestos, said Mr Bodibe.

“The department does not have the required capacity to compile the required inventory. However, we are in the process of acquiring additional capacity to deal with issues of this nature,” he said.

Equal Education is that all schools built with asbestos-containing materials, not just the 29 entirely asbestos schools, are “eradicated” and fixed by 29 November 2020. A report on asbestos schools published recently on the GDE’s website outlines plans to replace 29 schools by 2020 but mentions nothing about the 214 partially asbestos schools.

When asked what the GDE intends to do about those schools, Bodibe said: “The department is planning to replace all asbestos classrooms over time.”

This is a short version of a three-part series written by Laura Grant on asbestos in Gauteng schools. Click here for the full series, interactive maps and a searchable list of asbestos schools.

This report was produced with funding from the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Fund at Wits University.