Controversy as schools allegedly fitted out with “highly flammable, carcinogenic” roof tiles to substitute ‘killer asbestos’

It’s the latest shock to hit a country that has been scarred by deaths in fires over the last seven months: environmentalists claim material being used to replace asbestos in the nation’s schools is every bit as lethal as asbestos, possibly even worse.

According to Quercus, the polyurethane material is not only carcinogenic (as asbestos has proved to be), but “highly flammable”.

Leading fire expert Arnold Turling – talking to the UK’s Telegraph following the deadly Grenfell Tower tower block fire in London last June – highlighted the dangers of using what he called “cheaper, flammable insulation” made of polyurethane, stressing that non-flammable alternatives do exist, but are much more expensive.

Here, Filinto Lima, president of the association of directors of Portuguese state schools, admits that “people are beginning to think there is a growing risk for pupils” in ongoing asbestos replacement.

In Tondela, where nine people died and dozens were injured in a freak fire at a community centre on Saturday, the material’ in the false ceiling that ignited within seconds of the salamander ‘explosion’ was the same polyurethane that is being “increasingly used” in schools, writes tabloid Correio da Manhã.

For now, the education ministry’s official response has been that “schools’ building works interventions are duly monitored in all their components, with particular regard to fire safety”.

But this is unlikely to quell the growing sense of uncertainty.

Filinto Lima says it is time for the ministry to travel to schools fitted with polyurethane tiling to explain the situation to teachers, parents and pupils.

Manuel Pereira of the national association of school governors, agrees saying academic communities have a right to know what they are living with.

“We know there are a growing number of schools where the technique of using a cladding known as cappotto has been used”, he told CM. “And that worries us”.

Cappotto is a form of “integrated composite” that can actually use a number of materials, thus Pereira says it is important that the education ministry supplies information “so that we know whether or not it should be used” in the nation’s schools.

“There are other alternatives”, Pereira adds, naming cork – one that is plentiful in Portugal and poses no health risks whatsoever.

But today, Quercus’ warning is being rapidly spread by different news outlets.

Sábado quotes the environmental group’s coordinator Carmen Lima as saying polyurethane’s flammability is only the tip of its issues.

“It has volatile organic components that are released as it degrades and which are carcinogenic”, she explained, suggesting much like Manuel Pereira that the government has been primarily concerned with keeping costs down in its massive asbestos replacement programme.

So far, over 300 schools have had asbestos roofing and tiling removed, though Público reports that Quercus claims the process – which is “particularly dangerous for the workers involved, and for people present… due to the liberation of potential carcinogenic fibres” – is not always done properly.

The paper explains that Quercus “received a report last week” of a school in Guarda where asbestos tiling was being removed as pupils sat having a normal school day in their classes.

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