During the colonial era, most schools were roofed with asbestos sheets. They were durable, absorbed heat and made structures look good. Research later established that they were a health hazard. However, many years later, some schools are still stuck with the deadly roofs
Call it a curse of the white man's rule. Asbestos iron sheets, which were mainly used to roof Uganda's giant schools during the colonial time, are haunting us.
A random survey by Sunday Vision shows that schools are panicking to de-roof their classroom and dormitory blocks, following several international researches which have proved that asbestos could lead to deadly health problems such as cancer.
Although they are reluctant to talk about the cost of the exercise, most school heads admit they have had to spend millions of shillings on removing asbestos from their buildings.
Brother Edward Bukenya, the head teacher of St. Mary's Kisubi (SMACK), says the school started an aggressive effort about five years ago to remove the asbestos, which had existed for decades when the school started in 1906.
"It has been a process and we are now left with the main hall, library and the chapel. But plans are underway to remove them because we understand that this is a health hazard," Bukenya told Sunday Vision.
However, some schools like Buganda Road Primary School, one of the oldest primary schools in Kampala, is yet to embark on the process.
"We have discussed that before, but the idea was put on hold. We need to plan with stakeholders and source for funding from the education ministry," said Arnold Ntungwa, the deputy head teacher at Buganda Road.
At Maryhill High School, Mbarara, the head teacher, Margaret Atim, says all dormitories were re-roofed, but most of the classrooms are yet to be given a new roof. "We are aware it (asbestos) is not healthy, but we have not yet got funds. Staff houses also still have asbestos. It requires a lot of money, so we are doing it in phases," she said. Maryhill was built in 1961.
At City High School, which is a day school in Lugogo, Kampala, only one block had the asbestos removed. "The government told us they would help us, but it has not yet been done," said Claire Nduhura, the head teacher.
Mustafa Miwa, the deputy head teacher at Nabisunsa Girls, says the school got rid of all the asbestos sheets in classrooms and dormitories. But the staff houses are not yet re-roofed. At Ntare School, all buildings have a new rooftop, as the asbestos was removed.
Facts about asbestos
Asbestos roofing material is made up of fibers. It is very durable and is extremely heat-resistant.
Dr. Aryamanya Mugisha, an environmental health expert and former National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) boss, says after using asbestos for a long time, it begins to release some dust or small fibres which, if breathed in, can be poisonous. "Breathing in asbestos fibers over many years may result in serious diseases such as lung cancer, or other respiratory diseases," he says.
Typically, however, asbestos has no immediate health effects. It is not known to cause allergies or skin problems.
The world over, several researches have warned that deaths from asbestos-related diseases will surge over the next 20 years. In fact, The World Health Organisation (WHO) condemned the asbestos roofs as a health hazard more than a decade ago, declaring the need to eliminate asbestos use. An estimated 107,000 people worldwide die from asbestos-related diseases.
WHO estimates that it takes 30 to 50 years after exposure to develop asbestosis-related lung disease that is caused by breathing in asbestos fibers. Dr. Mugisha says symptoms include chest pain, cough, shortness of breath with exertion (slowly gets worse over time) and tightness in the chest.
In the US and Europe, most materials with asbestos have been banned and workers must wear respirators to keep from inhaling fibers.
Several countries, including Japan and South Korea, banned asbestos after they saw death numbers rise.
According to one respirology study last year, Dr. Ken Takahashi, the lead author and director of a WHO occupational health group, warned that governments must brace themselves for an "asbestos tsunami," if they did not ban the use the asbestos materials.
Legislators recently blasted the education ministry for not taking an effort to roof schools with proper iron sheets, saying they risked the lives of children.
"Asbestos causes cancer and it was abolished a long time ago. Why are you still using it?" Mbale representative Jack Wamanga Wammai asked during the parliamentary public accounts committee session.
The committee chairperson, Kassiano Wadri, also charged: "Time is money. Children are exposed to the danger of cancer."
... the number of years within which deaths from asbestos-related diseases will increase
...estimated number of people worldwide who die from asbestos-related diseases
Schools for renovation
The Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Chrysostom Muyingo, says there are plans to rehabilitate all the government-owned schools. But due to financial constraints, it has been difficult to do that as fast as possible.
"It is our priority, but resources are limited." The ministry officials could not reveal off head how many schools are still stuck with the deadly iron sheets.
But, going by the statistics of the education ministry, they could be in thousands. Statistics dating as back as 1986 show that Uganda had over 500 government owned and aided secondary schools, and about 7,000 government owned primary schools.
The latest Auditor General's report on Kabale National Teachers' College also queries the continued use of asbestos. "The buildings were very old and most of them were still roofed by asbestos sheets that were declared unfit for human habitation," the report says.
The under secretary of the education ministry, Doreen Katusiime, says most of the buildings that have been renovated by the college and other schools are using internally generated funds.
She, however, reveals that there is a major rehabilitation project funded by the World Bank, which is planned to replace the asbestos sheets.
"The plans were approved and the procurement process is on-going," says Katusiime.
She explained that sometimes the procedures and the process of hiring consulting engineers takes some time.
"The engineers are a stumbling block. They are a menace. They are paid a lot of money in kickbacks and they delay work," she said. Katusiime said the ministry has used district engineers before on some buildings, but they delivered shoddy work.
"Although private firms also take kickbacks, they are better on ensuring quality and timely delivery of services," she says.
Asked if government had no engineers to carry out the work, Katusiime said they were understaffed. "For instance, in the whole of Ibanda district we have one consulting engineer and if you do not have a lot of money to pay him, he will never approve your works," she says.
In the meantime, school children continue to inhale the deadly substance.