Britain's biggest teaching union is to call on headteachers to take immediate steps to remove all current supplies of gauze mats routinely used with Bunsen burners in school science laboratories – until it can be established for certain that they do not contain asbestos
The National Education Union's call comes after the UK's Health and Safety Executive revealed that schools and colleges have been supplied with mats containing the known carcinogen.
In a statement this week, the HSE said the risk from asbestos is "extremely low" from normal use of the gauze with a tripod placed over a burner.
Any free fibre release into the air will be minimal for normal use, it said. However, the material is "soft and crumbly" and some small particles or fragments may detach on occasions, including during use and storage, it added.
The HSE said a limited quantitative analysis showed that where asbestos was detected, it was in the range of around 20% to 30%. The asbestos was identified as tremolite, one of six regulated asbestos types.
So far, the HSE said it has identified two suppliers of scientific equipment selling the gauzes. Steps have been taken to prevent further supplies by them.
However, Sarah Lyons, lead officer for health and safety at the NEU, said: "Nearly 20 years after the use of all types of asbestos was banned, it is extremely disturbing to find out that asbestos-containing products have been introduced into schools by companies trusted by schools to supply a safe product.
The teaching union, Ms Lyons added, expects the HSE "to take the strongest possible action against these suppliers who have behaved recklessly in respect of the health and safety of children and staff"
In its advice the HSE said gauzes containing asbestos should not be used. Instead they should be safely disposed of as asbestos waste. If users are unsure about the gauze coating, "they should assume that it contains asbestos," it warned.
The two suppliers will be contacting all their customers, the agency said. When sourcing replacement gauzes, buyers should seek confirmation from their suppliers that the supply chain is assured and that new gauzes do not contain any level of asbestos.
To be certain, items originating outside the EU must be analysed by a laboratory accredited for asbestos identification by the UK Accreditation Service, it added.
Meanwhile, the NEU will be sending out advice shortly to headteachers in an e-bulletin. Among other things this advises: "Science departments may need to reschedule practical science lessons until they can secure a fresh supply of safe gauzes."
Asbestos use and supply is prohibited in the EU but not everywhere in the world. The HSE said it is investigating how the items got onto the UK market.
Last month, a study of school supplies by a US NGO has found that although the majority of products tested were safe, some contained asbestos, lead, benzene and other hazardous chemicals.