Asbestos. The very word is guaranteed to provoke a reaction from the man on the street. That reaction is usually one of fear and loathing – the former due to knowledge of the many deaths caused by this ruinous material, the latter out of horror at the criminal neglect of this known danger in the past by big business.
So John Prescott imagined he was on a pretty solid political wicket in introducing a blanket ban on white asbestos in November 1999. It seemed like he was defending the nation's health and attacking the evil capitalist exploiters of the British people.
In fact, he has done neither and – surprisingly, one would imagine for a Labour minister – he has played right into the hands of the worst kind of exploitative cartel. Since the ban, understanding of the science involved has not improved and there has been very little public discussion of the issue.
The ban puts building owners and their insurers into a potentially very expensive situation. Because it has been blacklisted, white asbestos is now classed as the most dangerous hazardous material. This means that any contractor involved in removing the product from a building may have to be licensed and will have to follow Health and Safety Executive rules, which are ambiguous and confusing. Failure to comply to the letter can result in crippling penalties for the firms concerned.
In terms of the actual removal operation, the specialists appear to regard their authorisation to remove asbestos as a licence to print money. Already there have been cases in which insurance companies were quoted £50,000 to remove asbestos cement, when the true cost of the operation was less than £4,000.
One company was quoted £600 to £1,600 per skipload for the disposal of asbestos-containing material. Assuming a skip holds 10 tonnes, this works out at £60 per tonne. For the past 50 years, annual sales of white asbestos products have been been around the 150,000-tonne mark, indicating that the potential skip cost alone would be £450m to £1.2bn, plus removal costs.
In another example, the kitchen of a private house had four ceiling panels made from brown asbestos encapsulated in a cement matrix. This meant that the panels were safe in situ – an appropriate treatment to doubly ensure safety being a simple covering of inexpensive paint containing a special coating.
However, the local licensed removal contractor condemned the panels and was fully supported by the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) inspector, who never even visited the site. The homeowner had no choice but to pay more than £3,000 to have the panels removed, or else face prosecution. Until last November, an ordinary builder could have carried out this work without any measurable danger to their health.
Jobs for the boys
It is patently obvious that the main beneficiaries of the recent changes in the law are the asbestos removal and asbestos replacement industries. The total potential value of asbestos replacement and removal is estimated at a staggering £100bn! Little wonder, then, that industry players have been lobbying so hard for the changes. Less easy to understand is why the HSC is allegedly colluding with the vested interests of the industry and consistently overlooking the valid scientific and economic issues.
The HSC, when it is advised of a problem, directs it to its approved licensed contractor, who can virtually name their price, safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be prosecuted by their benefactors – the HSC.
The main advisor to the HSC on asbestos is the Asbestos Information Council (AIC). But who runs the AIC? Why, none other than the former asbestos producers now into asbestos replacement products.
Another government advisory body is the Association of Manufacturers Against Asbestos (AAA), which is quite plainly a lobby group. The asbestos removal contractors also have their own association, the ARCA, which employs independent-looking consultants to act as government advisors and lobbyists.
Consider this in the context of what has happened in the US. In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (equivalent to the UK's HSC) justified its ban on white asbestos using the same so-called facts and scaremongering publicity as the HSC in this country. Following a US Supreme Court challenge later in the year, however, the ban was overturned on the basis that the EPA had "grossly exaggerated" the information. Furthermore, white asbestos was removed from the list of dangerous substances and asbestos cement was classed as "unsupervised landfill".
The Court, using the EPA's own information, revealed that banning asbestos cement pipes and roofing products would theoretically save only two or three lives over the next three decades, at a cost of $151m per life saved. It further stated that the risks posed by the substitute fibres would be similar. Thus, the Court concluded that the net saving of life, should the ban be upheld, would be zero.
Speak up or lose out
I was one of those contacted by the HSC during its preparation of consultation documents for the recent changes in the law and was very concerned that the commissioners dismissed the science while at the same time accepting the advice from vested interest groups.
I reported my concerns on several occasions to Mr Prescott's department, which refused to acknowledge that the HSC was not acting in the best interest of the public. I found the department to be indifferent to the financial damage done to many small companies.
The close relationship between the HSC and the lobby groups is unhealthy and, considering the huge amounts of money that have been spent, there ought to be an enquiry into whether this extremely powerful government body is, in fact, beyond reproach.
The vested interests have succeeded in pushing this issue in one direction, to potentially huge public disadvantage. As things stand, it can be very difficult for an individual, or the insurance company representing them, to assert their rights when confronted by an asbestos problem. Questions must be asked of our political masters and their servants. Pressure must be applied. Overlook it at your peril.
John Bridle is a consultant on white asbestos issues and is based in South Wales. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
COLOUR CODED KILLERS
There are two basic types of asbestos: fibrous amphiboles and fibrous serpentine. Brown asbestos (amosite) and blue asbestos (crocidolite) are both the first type, while white asbestos (chrysotile) is the second. The two types are chemically different, the former being iron-based and the latter magnesium-based.
Brown and blue asbestos have potentially fatal effects on human beings. Fibrous amphiboles are, in fact, iron hydrates containing sharp, needle-like fibres. If inhaled, these fibres stick to lung cells, skewer them like swords and eventually kill them. Apart from the actual tissue damage, the result is the creation of a perfect environment for the gradual development of cancer and asbestosis.
The really insidious part is that these diseases do not become apparent until 20 to 40 years after the initial exposure. Blue and brown asbestos have not been imported into Britain for 20 years but in 1994, deaths from asbestosis and mesothelima were running at 1,409 a year, up from the 646 recorded a decade earlier.
Chrysotile was originally called white "asbestos" because it is part of a family of fibrous materials, but this is where any resemblance to the other asbestos products ends. Chrysotile is a hydrate of magnesium, with soft, silky fibres, which are completely different from the needle-like fibres of the amphiboles, and which do not cause cellular damage. As with any fibrous or dust-releasing product there are incidental low-level health risks associated with inhalation. However, in terms of fibres that people might generally inhale, chrysotile is comparatively benign; research shows that it takes, on average, 90 days for a chrysotile fibre to be expelled from the body, compared to 1,000 days for cellulose fibre.
Inhalation of dust and fibres of any kind should always be minimised. But the vast majority of white asbestos products are in the form of asbestos cement, which is 6–10% chrysotile fibres encased in a cement matrix. In terms of safety, this puts white asbestos in this form into the same category as cellulose, fibre glass or mineral wool.
John Prescott has claimed that 10,000 deaths a year could be caused by white asbestos. I would suggest this figure is completely false and is based on a very unscientific extrapolation of the results of an experiment carried out on rats. The rats had high concentrations of chrysotile fibres injected into their nostrils at a rate that would have suffocated them if breathed normally. The death rate of the rats subjected to this horrific and unscientific treatment would have been as great, or even greater, with any fibrous or dust-producing material.