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Asbestos Safer Than Water?

July 29, 2010

With BBC journalists perpetuating the confusion over asbestos we question whether this alarmist reporting is intended to make their stories more interesting or if there is something more sinister afoot...

We all know that you can’t always trust what you read, that some journalists will twist facts and manipulate the truth to make their stories more interesting. That some people use statistics like a drunken man uses lamp posts: more for support than illumination – Andrew Lang.

What is perhaps less well known is what happens when a whole bunch of journalists get together to form their own little group. Amazingly, instead of correcting each other’s mistakes, it would appear that the fact-twisting and truth-bending increases exponentially.

Enter the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists or ICIJ who have teamed up with the BBC world service for this latest well funded and incredibly well organised, military-style assassination attempt on the chrysotile (white asbestos) cement industry. The BBC’s involvement is currently under formal complaint by the Asbestos Watchdog especially as one of the producers refused to answer questions regarding the programme’s funding.

This is not the first time the BBC has lent its apparent credibility to the ban asbestos campaign. In 2004 a BBC Radio 4 broadcast featured a damning character assassination attempt on Prof. John Bridle, the Asbestos Watchdog’s Chief Inspector and UK whistleblower on the great asbestos deception. Littered with lies, twisted words and contributions from vested interests hell-bent on destroying the man instead of debating the issue, the whole piece was so exaggerated and laughable that it actually achieved the opposite to that intended.

Taking a leaf from the lawyer’s book, the common trick used throughout all of these programmes is to use the blanket term ‘asbestos’ when quoting mortality rates and related diseases and then going on to talk about ‘chrysotile’ as if it were the cause.

For anyone who is new to the subject ‘asbestos’ is just a trade name given to a range of fibrous mineral silicates, all with varying properties and commercial applications. The differences between the types of fibre are huge. Mineralogists call chrysotile a ‘serpentine’ mineral. It is silky and soft and when breathed in readily dissolves in the acidic environment of the lung, or if swallowed, in the even more acidic environment of the stomach. The genuinely dangerous blue and brown asbestos types are known as ‘amphiboles’. They do not dissolve in the body. Their fibres are like needles and they stay in the lungs for a lifetime.

This magical word ‘asbestos’ does have its uses. It exposes ignorance and corruption wherever it is mentioned. Anybody claiming that chrysotile cement is a ‘deadly killer’ either hasn’t read much of the science, doesn’t understand it if they have or has a vested interest in its condemnation.

Of course the ban asbestos lobbyists gave up fighting the science long ago. Instead they hire journalists to produce alarmist reports, perpetuating the confusion that they thrive on. They wheel out victims of amphibole related cancers in support of the argument to ban chrysotile. They quote government statisticians instead of specialist scientists, using outdated figures that have long since been discredited. They ignore significant and damning revelations like the USA overturning a ban on asbestos cement products in 1991. The judge famously stated in his summing up that double the number of people will die in the US from the inhalation of toothpicks than from asbestos cement products.

The vested interests also state that “white asbestos is a known carcinogen”. That’s true but it must be put into context. Silica, the chemical that is the sand on the beach is also carcinogenic. A lot of chemicals can cause cancer in people when too much of them get into our bodies. For instance, nickel and some nickel compounds are in the same list but when nickel is in a product like Euro-coinage the risk is significantly lowered. Sunlight is also in this list, along with contraceptive pills, wood dust, alcoholic beverages and the benzene in petrol. Should we ban all of these on the same basis? No. To do so would be absurd.

Of course nobody has ever said that chrysotile is totally safe. Nothing is. Any particulate, if inhaled in large enough quantities can overburden the lungs and cause serious respiratory disease. As with any dose related event the risk can be controlled with safe working practices. When chrysotile is combined with cement it is very difficult for its fibres to be released and trusted scientists have shown that the risks associated with chrysotile cement products are ‘too small to be measured’. To use the dose related (precautionary) principle to claim that there is ‘no safe threshold’ can be used to condemn anything. Risk analysis, on the other hand, allows us to make considered decisions about safe use. We live with gas and electricity by managing the hazards they pose and using measures that reduce the risk to safe levels. We do not ban them.

Governments would be wise to look hard at the vested interests supporting these alarmist promotions. The damage that a total ban has caused the UK economy through spurious litigation and ever rising insurance premiums, crippling red tape and unnecessary asbestos removal costs is nothing when compared to the potential damage facing the economies of Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Russia, India, Kazakhstan & China, currently under threat.

Some 85% of the world’s population still use chrysotile cement products and millions of livelihoods depend on it. The people most determined to protect their industry aren’t the industrial fat cats but the very workers in the mines and factories whose lives, you would be forgiven for thinking, are claimed to be most at threat. In reality, in all but a few countries, the working conditions in the mines and factories have long since been cleaned up to such a degree that the air inside many of them is cleaner than the air outside. Whilst the legacy of bad practices in the past are sadly still with us we should not let these now historical issues dictate the future.

The driving force calling for a ban on chrysotile is the mass of vested interests. Claims-lawyers looking to expand their potential compensation markets by 85%, unions, doctors and victim support groups receiving commissions from lawyers for referrals of their members and patients. At the commercial level are the alternative fibre producers, unable to compete with the cheapness and uniqueness of chrysotile cement products to removal contractors and surveyors using this exaggerated risk to condemn materials for costly removal that could be better managed in-situ.

With so many powerful and wealthy vested interests standing to profit from a total ban of chrysotile are we to believe that this consortium of journalists have gone to such lengths simply to make their stories more interesting?

Of course you would hope that people aren’t gullible enough to fall for their tricks. But consider this:

A student in the US recently won first prize at a science fair for his project that exposed how conditioned we have become to alarmists, practising junk-science and spreading fear of everything in our environment. In his project he urged people to sign a petition demanding strict control or total elimination of the chemical “Di-hydrogen Monoxide” and for plenty of good reasons, since:

  • It can cause excessive sweating and vomiting
  • It is a major component in acid rain
  • It can cause severe burns in its gaseous state
  • Accidental inhalation can kill you
  • It contributes to erosion
  • It decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes
  • It has been found in tumours of terminal cancer patients


He asked 50 people if they supported a total ban of the chemical: 43 said yes. 6 were undecided.

Only 1 knew that the chemical was, in fact, water.

Asbestos Watchdog

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