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How asbestos materials expose learners, teachers to hazard

 Some of the classrooms built decades ago at Amwamba Day Primary School in Igembe South Sub County. [File, Standard]

For years, Amwamba Primary School in Meru County’s Igembe area has been a top-performing school in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and among the best in the country. 

But despite the school’s stellar performance, there is an environmental hazard that hangs over the heads of the teachers and learners. Their roofs and walls are made of asbestos, a material that poses serious health risks.  

Despite the World Health Organization (WHO) warning the use of asbestos as building materials poses a health risk to people, some schools in Meru and Tharaka Nithi still have the materials on their buildings.  

According to the WHO, all types of asbestos cause diseases such as mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lung cavity), lung cancer, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs).  

“Asbestos exposure occurs through inhalation of fibres in air in the working environment, ambient air in the vicinity of point sources such as factories handling asbestos, or indoor air in housing and buildings containing friable (crumbly) asbestos materials,” WHO warns on its website. 

Amwamba Primary School head teacher Kithinji Kamui says that six of the school’s classrooms have both their walls and roofs made of asbestos. Some of the lower classrooms have gaping holes after the asbestos was worn out, exposing the learners to the danger of inhaling the fibres.  

Mr Kamui says that over Sh10 million is needed for the classrooms to be rebuilt without the asbestos. 

Worryingly, the asbestos materials in many public schools have been there for years. 

Chuka Boys High School is another top-performing institution in the region. Some of the well-known alumni who once occupied the school’s classrooms include Governor Njuki and former Meru governor Kiraitu Murungi. 

Others are KCA University Vice Chancellor Prof Isaiah Wakindiki, Mr Kiraitu’s brother Dr Wilson Murungi and university don and poet-cum playwright Prof Kithaka Wa Mberia. 

But an unnerving fact casts a shadow on the school’s prestigious history –  13 buildings have asbestos roofing including the principal’s office, the staffroom and some classrooms.

The principal, Gitonga Imunya, says that more than Sh6m is needed to replace the roofing with iron sheets. 

Tharaka Nithi Governor Muthomi Njuki, who is also the Council of Governors (CoG) Health Committee Chairman, acknowledges that many school and government buildings are still roofed with materials.  

According to the WHO, the lack of comprehensive occupational exposure legislation and enforcement policies is one reason the materials are still in use. 

According to Legal Notice No. 121 of the Environmental Management and Coordination (Waste Management) Regulations, 2006, wastes containing asbestos in the form of dust or fibres are classified as hazardous wastes.  

The National Environment Management Authority, Kenya (NEMA) first published the National Guidelines On Safe Management And Disposal Of Asbestos in 2012. The specific objectives of the guidelines were to ensure environmentally sound disposal of asbestos and to provide assistance in compliance with Environmental Management and Coordination (EMC) Waste Management Regulations, 2006. The guidelines also aimed to ensure the safe removal, handling, packaging and transportation of asbestos and to create and raise awareness of the hazards of asbestos.

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