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Asbestos - The Most Expensive Word in History

January 05, 2008

From BSE to bird' flu, one of the most conspicuous features of our modern world has been the 'scare' - some threat to human health which becomes vastly exaggerated, provoking a hugely costly political response. In our new book Scared To Death we analyse many of the major scares of recent years, showing how they follow a remarkably consistent pattern.

A crucial part in almost every scare is played by supposed scientific experts who misread or even manipulate the evidence, usually by putting two things together and theorising, wrongly, that they are linked. A classic instance of this has been the great scare which has swept the Western world in recent decades over asbestos, based, as it turns out, on a fundamental scientific confusion which has cost businesses, homeowners, insurance companies and our economies truly astronomic sums.

Most people these days imagine that asbestos has been identified as one of the most dangerous substances in the world, and that even the slightest contact with its 'deadly fibres' can cause cancer. They might be startled to know that more than 90 per cent of this alarm is wholly unfounded. This is because the unscientific term 'asbestos' is used to describe two different minerals, with quite different properties.

On one hand are what are known as 'blue' and 'brown' asbestos or 'amphiboles'. These are iron silicate, the hard, sharp, acid-resistant fibres of which can accumulate in the human lung over many years, causing two very nasty forms of cancer.

On the other hand is the very much more widespread white asbestos or chrysotile. This is a magnesium silicate, chemically similar to talcum powder, the soft, silky fibres of which dissolve so readily in the lung that their half-life is only 11.4 days.
By far the commonest use of white asbestos is as a binding agent used with cement to make a wide range of products such as roof slates. The fibres holding the cement together undergo a chemical change which makes them no longer respirable by the lungs at all.

The essence of the great asbestos scare has been that the genuinely dangerous properties of the amphiboles have been projected onto white asbestos, which in manufactured form poses no measurable risk to health whatever (like any dust, such as flour, chrysotile is only dangerous when workers are exposed to its raw fibres in very high doses).

The alarm over asbestos began in the early 1960s when a much higher than normal mortality rate was discovered in US shipyard workers who had been exposed to very high concentrations of amphiboles (blue and brown asbestos, because of their acid-resistance, were extensively used for insulation in shipbuilding).

Particularly when it was revealed that manufacturers had long been suppressing evidence of the damage inflicted on workers, this led to a fast-growing avalanche of compensation claims. And it was at this point that the confusion between the different forms of asbestos crept in, a basic error which the lawyers and more alarmist scientists did nothing to discourage.

By the end of the 1980s these soaring compensation claims were becoming a major threat to the global insurance industry (in the early 1990s they brought Lloyds of London to its knees). The panic over asbestos was now so great that in 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried to ban its use in the US altogether, making no distinction between amphiboles and chrysotile. In 1991 the federal courts reversed the ban on white asbestos, stating that, on the EPA's own data, it was likely to cause many fewer deaths than 'the ingestion of toothpicks'.

By now, however, the panic had given rise to two separate commercial scams, both immensely lucrative. The first was being run by the compensation lawyers, who by now had brought hundreds of thousands of claims, the vast majority of which, as eventually emerged, were bogus (a celebrated expose in Fortune magazine dubbed it 'The $200 Billion Miscarriage Of Justice').

The other scam was worked by the new profession of licensed contractors who, under new laws on both sides of the Atlantic, were now alone legally permitted to work with asbestos. This enabled them to exploit the general fear and confusion by charging absurdly inflated sums for removing supposedly 'deadly' asbestos from buildings, more than 90 per cent of which was in fact harmless.

The colossal sums of money now at stake had called into being a powerful political lobby, supported by the law firms and contractors, along with the multi-national manufacturers of asbestos substitutes, who had a vested interest in perpetuating the confusion between the different types of asbestos; and in 1999 they won a signal victory in persuading the EU to introduce a total ban, making no distinction between amphiboles (long since been withdrawn from the market) and chrysotile.

On the back of this muddying of the scientific and legal waters, the various commercial interests have continued to enjoy an extraordinary bonanza, ripping off the public on both sides of the Atlantic on a colossal scale. When in 2002 Britain's Health and Safety Executive introduced new regulations to comply with EU law (flatly contradicting studies carried out by the HSE itself), its original estimate for the cost of implementation was £8 billion, making it one of the two most expensive laws ever put on the UK statute book. Subsequent evidence of the alarming scale on which HSE-licensed contractors have continued to exploit their privileged position, by grotesquely overcharging for work often not necessary at all, suggests that even this was a serious underestimate.

Only in the past few years have a series of new studies by some of the world's leading independent scientific experts on asbestos (such as Dr David Bernstein, Professor Fred Pooley and Dr John Hoskins) finally confirmed in exhaustive detail just how insignificant is the danger which chrysotile poses to human health.

But by now, thanks to that basic linguistic confusion, the damage has been done - making 'asbestos' arguably the single most expensive word in history.

Chrsitopher Booker & Richard North

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