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The brown, white and blue

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Thanks to a court ruling, mesothelioma sufferers can now sue employers. But how much of a risk is asbestos?

The fatal flaw

Further to the Astragal story on asbestos (AJ 23.5.02), the real scandal is not new EC directives about tighter regulations but the fact it has taken the asbestos industry nearly 100 years to come clean about the health risks.

In 1898, factory inspectors visited an asbestos works and linked the amount of dust in the air with the number of young women workers who were suffering epidemic levels of respiratory lung disease. No one did anything about it.

In 1931, the first Asbestos Regulations were passed, regulating the amount of fibres in the air. People were beginning to die from airborne fibres; not just those who worked in mining and manufacturing but people who lived near the factory, children whose parents worked in the factory and wives who washed their husband's clothes. It would take a further 15 or more years before people started developing chronic illnesses for which there is no cure: blue asbestos causes mesothelioma; brown and white leads to asbestosis and lung cancer.

The breakthrough came in 1987 when lawyers working for Chase Manhattan Bank in New York linked deaths among NY construction workers and deaths among people who had worked in, and lived near, the factory - in Armley, Leeds -which manufactured the sprayed Limpet Asbestos.

One of the major problems of blue/crocidolite, brown/amosite and white/chrysotile is that the three main types cannot be identified by colour. Once used in building products, all types are white. Many products containing asbestos cannot be identified from appearance alone.

It was not until the UK was bound by EC directives on health and safety that we actually gained the protection that other countries had adopted many years before. Not only did the UK have less safe exposure levels, but we also imported asbestos that other countries had banned.

Asbestos-related diseases in the UK kill 3,000 people a year. Most of these are men who worked in the construction industry during the 1950s and '60s. That number could rise to 10,000 a year.

If reputable magazines such as the AJ carry such misleading information, is it any wonder that the government wants to impose a new head of ARB with special knowledge of health and safety?

Sam Webb, Canterbury

Risk? What risk?

From a moral, or even judicial, standpoint (since Lord Bingham's revised ruling in the Fairchild case), the fact that workers who contracted mesothelioma from working with asbestos have received compensation, seems only fair and proper. This is probably not a point of contention. What should be argued against is the inflated level of anxiety about asbestos. In discussions on the topic, asbestos has become a generic byword for danger, resulting in (sometimes needless) expensive stripping out, or encapsulation, lest we suffer extreme health implications from mild exposure.

The British Asbestos Newsletter, (Issue 43, summer 2001), estimates that asbestos is present in 850,000 commercial properties, 400,000 flats and most houses built in the UK prior to 1985. But so what? All things considered, there need not necessarily be any health implication arising from this.

While visually it may be difficult to differentiate between white, brown and blue asbestos, on discovering asbestos in a building the first course of action is not to strip it out but to send samples for analysis to confirm the nature of the problem (if any).

Unfortunately, even if it is shown to be the relatively stable chrysotile, brave is the client who decides to 'leave well alone' - as high-profile legal cases, and an increasingly litigious society, dictate that no one wants to take the responsibility of 'what if '.

Whatever the horrors of the asbestos industry in the past (as with other Victorian practices such as sending men down coal mines or boys up chimneys), the risks from white asbestos have been exaggerated.

Mesothelioma deaths now are generally the consequence of severe exposures in heavy industries more than one or two generations ago.

Experts vary on how long it takes for fibres to cause illness: the US Mesothelioma Information and Resource Group suggest 35-40 years; while Bill Callaghan of the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) estimates that it takes 60 years for the disease to manifest itself.

Given that Canada is the largest producer of asbestos, it is interesting to refer to McDonald's research* which showed that of 11,000 workers studied, of whom 8,000 died during the study period, only 37 could be attributed to chrysotile mesothelioma. Importantly, no cases were detected in those workers with less than two years' severe daily exposure.

These are low risks.

It is not the real implications of asbestos, but a 'know your rights' legal trawl for potential victims which has inflamed paranoia and uncertainty.

The fact that not a single case of mesothelioma has been conclusively linked to chrysotile asbestos in this country should be a point of celebration. This does not mean that more research should not be carried out, in a rational way. But, at the moment, no evidence exists for it to receive such a high level of caution.

Austin Williams, AJ *

'The 1891-1920 birth cohort of Quebec chrysotile miners and millers: mortality 1976-88', McDonald JC, Liddell FD, Dufresne A and McDonald AD, Br J Ind Med.

1993;60:1073

Unhealthy odds

The danger from the release of asbestos fibres is something that many people in the building industry still fail to grasp, either from ignorance or a macho feeling that the whole issue has been greatly exaggerated. It is often argued that workers dying of lung disease were heavy smokers and it was that that was killing them.

There has been a continuous PR exercise to stress how white asbestos does not cause mesothelioma. This is, of course, true, although I seem to have read somewhere that some research has stated that the longer fibres of white asbestos could be a cause.

As the health and safety advisor at the Kent Institute of Art and Design, I noticed that every time there was some building work, asbestos was found - from sprayed Limpet asbestos round boilers and pipework to panels masquerading as plasterboard, or in some cases, pin-up board in studios. With the constant rearrangement of rooms and equipment, it was virtually impossible to prevent damage, with the subsequent risk of the release of fibres.

Often it is possible to 'manage' the asbestos. However, this requires a great deal of knowledge on the part of the management team running the properties.

Often an attitude of 'we'll cross that bridge when we come to it' prevails. At one estate, I was concerned at the possible danger to tenants, so I wrote to various medical experts and the BRE, but no one could, or would, say conclusively that asbestos in the home could kill the occupants. Then I found a tenant, a non-smoker, who had never worked with asbestos, and who was dying from what his doctor suspected was asbestosis.After he died, the doctor wanted an autopsy but his wife did not, so the cause of his death was never established for certain.

I recommended that both these blocks had all the asbestos removed, be stripped down to the concrete core and steelwork, and then demolished.

Because of the strict interpretation of the Health and Safety at Work Act, some authorities would not even take steps to notify tenants about the dangers from damage to panels. This was most noticeable in hallways where prams and pushchairs had scraped along walls, exposing and releasing fibres at the very level where small children would breathe them in.

One of the provisos I made when I took on my new H&S role at KIAD was that I undertook proper training in all aspects of H&S. The dangers from all types of asbestos to health have not been exaggerated. Indeed, I think they have probably been understated.

Sam Webb, Canterbury

Where is evidence of harm?

As a researcher writing a book about asbestos for a PhD degree, I was once told that people who claim that chrysotile products are a danger to health fall into two groups: those who have not read or understood the scientific information; and those who hope to make a profit from it.

During the past seven years I have accumulated a vast amount of documentation about all aspects of the asbestos saga. However, one fact remains unaltered: the anti-asbestos groups steadfastly refuse to submit any creditable science or debate the issue in public. In fairness to the many independent scientists, many of whom have been commissioned by the HSE, they have all cooperated brilliantly. They are as mystified as I am over the unwillingness of the authorities to publish these reports for public debate. Instead, we have to accept punitive and crippling costs from laws and procedures written with the use of junk science bought and paid for by the vested interests.

Of course asbestos - all asbestos - can be dangerous. The difference between a cure and a poison is the size of the dose. Chrysotile within our homes and commercial properties does not present any measurable risk to health. Of course, if irresponsible procedures are implemented, creating large amounts of breathable dust, then there are liable to be lung problems.

The HSE tells us that white asbestos is a class 1 carcinogen.While that is true, it has to be put into perspective: the euro coin - a nickel plated alloy - is in the same group.

A government briefing note on new asbestos regulations sent to MEPs says: 'The new proposals are likely to incur significant costs for British businesses in remedial measures, including compulsory building surveys of all commercial properties.

There is strong evidence that both the EC directives and HSE regulations on this issue are based on flawed research.' [Document issued by the HSC dated 18.3.02, No 1593] In the light of the growing public concerns about the high costs of these new proposals, with no benefit to health, we must have an independent debate. The HSE has clearly not done this. The 3,000 deaths from asbestos are not real ones, only a theoretical estimate. There is no record of any asbestos death from handling white asbestos products in the past 100 years.

Of even more concern is the information I have recently received about the selection of experts that have written the new laws. They all work for the industry that will profit from these new regulations and the HSE will not release any minutes of those meetings, or the names of the members.

John Bridle, technical consultant for the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association (ACPPA)

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