Asbestos is a pathogenic fiber, the carcinogenic character of which has been recognized by the International Labour Organisation-ILO and the World Health Organization-WHO. Widely used in Europe between the 70s and the 90s, asbestos has been banned in over 50 countries. One of the main applications of asbestos was the production of fiber cement (cement asbestos), used in construction, as is the case of fiber cement roofing.
In 1999 a European directive prohibited the extraction, commercialization and use of asbestos in the production of new materials, and January the 1st, 2005, was the deadline for implementation of the prohibition by member countries. According to this rule, it is mandatory for employers to identify the existence of asbestos in buildings, facilities and infrastructure (public and private), check its degradation and monitor it. The Parliament recommended the Portuguese government to implement measures leading to inventory all public buildings containing asbestos and the development of a timetable for action to ensure the prevention of risks.
In 2005, the national union of professors, Fenprof, legally requested from the government access to the databases to find out the number of schools with asbestos. This lead to the approval of a law that stipulated the removal of asbestos from all buildings, facilities and public infrastructure within one year; the organization and public disclosure of a list with this information; and government action to ensure the monitoring and (or) removal of hazardous materials.
After the stipulated period of one year, some schools issued statements about the presence of asbestos in their structures and their state of degradation. In March 2013, a list of 52 schools was released that were in a program from the Ministry of Education and Science (MEC) for removal of plates containing asbestos, but the full list was not released.
The NGO Quercus denounced Portugal to the European Commission for not making public the risks of exposure to asbestos. At the beginning of 2014, Fenprof delivered a formal request to MEC, demanding that a list of schools that contain asbestos in their buildings should be provided. This entity has made several complaints against the government and the MEC over the past few years, before national and international bodies such as the International Labour Organization and the Attorney General's Office. The General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP in portuguese) issued a press release where it was stated that the deadline for compiling the list of buildings containing asbestos had already been expired two years ago and that the non-fulfillment of this law by the government was leading to a worsening of a public health problem.
Although MEC statements indicate the withdrawal of asbestos in more than 100 schools and their expected realization in over a hundred more, the slowness and inaction of government on the issue of asbestos in various schools in the country has led to protests for the withdrawal of asbestos with the participation of students, parents and teachers.
Quercus and the National Federation of Teachers (Fenprof) met several times to discuss the government's inaction and strategies that would enable them to demand the removal of asbestos from schools.
In 2014, the government released a list of 2,015 buildings, facilities and other public structures (there are over 600,000 buildings with roofing fiber cement tiles in the whole country) that may contain asbestos, most of which were MEC buildings, and the institutions involved demanded a quick removal of the mineral fiber. Among these institutions is the Central General Workers of Portugal (CGTP) that has pointed out the presence of asbestos in many buildings such as the buildings of the General Direction of Energy and the National Library.