Thursday, January 20, 2011

The great asbestos deception: does this sound familiar?

Nothing inspires more ignorance, hysteria and fraud than asbestos, argues John Bridle

Asbestos is probably the most misunderstood word ever used in modern times. It is also a word that inspires more ignorance, hysteria and fraud than any other. It was described in a recent best selling book entitled Scared to Death by the brilliant Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker and his associate Richard North as the most expensive word in history.

However it may surprise many when you discover that’s all it is. Just a word. There are over 400 naturally occurring fibrous silicates of which the three most used – blue, brown and white – were all called ‘asbestos’ as a marketing label purely for commercial purposes.

So what lies behind the deceptions? First, there was during the first half of the last century a terrible problem with thousands of workers in the asbestos industries getting debilitating and often fatal diseases from all forms of asbestos.

The main culprits were the blue and the brown asbestos. White asbestos is a totally different mineral which in its dust form is the same mineral as talcum powder. However if this was inhaled in excessive amounts over long periods it certainly could caused fatal lung cancer.


To understand the risks from white asbestos, the mining of coal and quarrying of stone produces silica dust that is many times more hazardous than white asbestos. In today’s environment it is virtually impossible to become exposed to lethal levels of all types of asbestos from the products that contain it.

Blue asbestos was not used in UK after 1970 and the brown likewise by 1980. White asbestos was not banned in UK and Europe until 1999. Virtually the rest of the world continues to use white asbestos quite safely.

Most of the products made with asbestos are the corrugated roofing sheets that cover many of our factories, farm buildings and domestic garages. These sheets are made with white asbestos. Research has shown that the risk to health from the white asbestos in this product is too small to measure but our authorities would have you believe it has a similar risk to radioactive anthrax.


This is where the deception starts. A genuine hazard from the past that no longer exists is exaggerated by vested interests to scare the population into spending vast sums of money to remove one of the commonest building materials unnecessarily.

Some governments (including the UK) are persuaded, some believe by inappropriate means, to exaggerate mortality rates to justify composing regulations that can be used to force property owners to pay for the removal of products that may contain asbestos. Some contain such small amounts that it is almost impossible to measure.

You are bound to have heard the health and safety information that asbestos disease is the worst industrial killer of all time. They claim that 3500 die each year and 20 plumbers and carpenters die each week. It’s total rubbish. The true figures are around 1200 per year of which 95% were born before 1940.

There are four main diseases you can get from asbestos. Mesothelioma is the main one but it cannot be developed from white asbestos. Asbestosis, lung cancer and pleural plaques do not occur as a result of exposure to white asbestos in today’s environment.

So everyone who has an asbestos disease already has it and the £80 billion cost of the new asbestos regulations promoted by the HSE and the EA will not save a single life.


The regulations also spawn unenforceable measurements to support prosecutions. For instance the Hazardous Waste Regulation, enforced by our own very expensive Environment Agencies, allow up to 0.1% of asbestos fibre to normal waste before it becomes an offence. Believe it or not this calculation cannot be measured by any laboratory in the world so no one has any idea if they have broken the law.

The EA was challenged recently by experts to explain this crazy regulation. They did not accept for one moment that it was impossible to measure 0.1% of asbestos fibre in waste. So as an example they were asked to calculate as a percentage 100 grams of dry waste that contains 200 million blue asbestos fibres that have a specific gravity of 2.4.

The calculation was greeted with total confusion. So to save any further embarrassment an alternative question was posed. Would the EA allow someone to bury such waste in an unlicensed tip? Now this was more like it. They had no problems answering this one. They confirmed that their inspectors would certainly prosecute anyone who attempted such a thing and they would succeed with the prosecution without the need to make the measurement.

Soon after, the Sunday Telegraph’s Christopher Booker published the story that the Environment Agency was intending to ban the burying of human bodies in unlicensed graveyards. You see, the average human lung for anyone over 50 will quite naturally contain 200 million asbestos fibres.

Every day, even living at the poles, everyone will inhale around 20,000 asbestos fibres that naturally occur as one fibre in every litre of air we breathe. So this also kills off the much loved myth of the asbestos claims lawyers and the asbestos removal industry. One fibre does NOT kill.


So who is benefiting from the asbestos deception? The list is not long but the amounts are eye watering. Some calculations put it at over £4 billion per annum.

The main winners are the ‘no win no fee’ law firms. Next are the unions who get substantial commissions for referring their members to law firms to make claims. If the USA’s model for this claims culture is repeated in the UK then 90% are spurious and this poisonous group are literary sucking the compensation from the few genuine victims.

The next group to benefit is, believe it or not, the insurance industry. You may think that they are the victims but just take a look at this supposed calculation. The main insurance companies reserve from their per-tax profits, say £300 billion. They invest this oversees at 10% gross. That delivers a profit of £30 billion per annum and they only pay out £4 billion per year to the claims lawyers and then they get to put our premiums up as well.

So profitable is this business that senior executives from some of the biggest insurers co-operated with the claims lawyers to promote the junk science that is needed to spread the panic.

Next is the asbestos removal industry followed by political parties who benefit from donations as well as the Treasury that’s getting VAT on all the business.

Then there are the doctors who get commissions for referring so called victims to their scan vans for processing and for submitting witness statements for the asbestos claims cases. The waste tipping companies are also making excessive profits. And last but not least are the producers of the alternative fibres to asbestos.

Asbestos is certainly a risk to your wealth rather than your health.

John Bridle is chief inspector of Asbestos Watchdog

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