Schools are likely to be a top priority in a federal government plan for a nationwide reduction in the presence of asbestos.

The federal government is setting up a new office of asbestos safety which will in turn create a national anti-asbestos agency to co-ordinate removal of the banned cancer-causing material from all types of buildings.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten has agreed in principle to an Australian Council of Trade Unions proposal to target schools first.

“Obviously, exposure to children is particularly repugnant, but there is no good exposure for any group,” Mr Shorten told reporters at an asbestos summit in Sydney on Tuesday.

“I can see the sense in what was raised by the unions today. I’ll also work with the state governments to work out what is the appropriate priorities, but it makes sense.”

The summit, convened by the ACTU, heard that Australia has the world’s highest prevalence of asbestos-related diseases, including deadly mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma sufferer Serafina Salucci told the summit she will never fully recover from the illness she contracted as a child after playing with fibro sheets.

Ms Salucci was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2007.

“I did quite a bit of chemotherapy after I was diagnosed and then in February 2008 I had an operation where I had my right lung removed,” she said.

“Life was getting back to normal again but then I had a recurrence about two years ago where they found another tumour.”

Mr Shorten said he would like see all asbestos removed from Australia “tomorrow”.

But there were not enough places to dispose of the material, he said.

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) national secretary Paul Bastian called on the federal opposition and state governments to support the establishment of a national asbestos co-ordinating body.

The AMWU would like to see this organisation conduct a national audit of public and commercial buildings, issue complete contamination reports for all pre-1987 structures and engage in training and community awareness programs, Mr Bastian said.

“These are the priority activities which … will be essential in reducing further asbestos related disease,” he said in a statement.