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HSE Forced to Amend "Hidden Killer" Campaign

September 29, 2009

The Advertising Standards Authority [ASA] have recently upheld our complaint about the HSE’s massive advertising campaign claiming that asbestos kills 4500 workers every year. That was further refined to claim that 9 plumbers, 9 carpenters, and 9 electricians will die every week from asbestos exposure. The HSE must now stop making these exaggerated claims.

The Asbestos Watchdog was forced to make this complaint as the HSE have refused (for over 9 years) to discuss our concerns that they were suppressing and ignoring relevant science (much of it their own) that clearly disputed the mortality rates from asbestos exposure. This is contrary to their own charter which dictates that they must consider ALL available scientific data.

After many months of attempting to justify their evidence for promoting this campaign the HSE failed to convince the ASA as to the validly of the data they were supplying.

After the publication of the ASA decision Watchdog and Prof Bridle were again exposed to the predicable tirade of abuse that accompanies any suggestion that the risks associated with white asbestos have been exaggerated.  

The abuse on the web sites is now being classed as breaching the new criminal offence of ‘Aggressive Harassment’.  Thanks to a bit of detective work most of the culprits behind this abuse have been identified and a file has been sent to a senior police fraud officer for action. This includes some members of parliament as well as BBC journalists and claims lawyers. Assuming we get a new government the new evidence will be used to apply for a full pardon for Prof Bridle.

We have set out below the details of the complaint made to the ASA:

The Advertising Standards Authority [ASA] have recently upheld our complaint about the HSE’s massive advertising campaign claiming that asbestos kills 4500 workers every year. That was further refined to claim that 9 plumbers, 9 carpenters, and 9 electricians will die every week from asbestos exposure. The HSE must now stop making these exaggerated claims.

The ASA, after an initial investigation, were satisfied that this was a commercial advertising campaign and not a government information promotion. The ASA asked us to provide evidence to support our complaint and below is the text of our submission using only HSE statistics:

We have evidence to show that the UK Government and the HSC and HSE have deliberately and systematically deceived the public over the risks from asbestos and white asbestos in particular.  I will include some of the more important data on the next page.

Firstly the main reason for our complaint is that 4000 deaths [or up to 5000 as claimed by the TUC] do NOT occur each year from asbestos related disease in the UK. The basis for the HSE to make this claim is a series of calculations contrived from a theoretical model based on a linier extrapolation that includes totally wrong data. The formula below is used by the HSE to justify the basis for the 4000 estimated deaths and 90% of the information in this formula is grossly inaccurate or just plain wrong.  

The expansion of this flawed calculation is explained below

HSE Death Stats Mesothelioma:

Mesothelioma:

The likelihood of contracting Mesothelioma depends on a variety of risk factors:

1.   the age at which exposure to asbestos first occurred

2.   the number of fibres breathed in

3.   the frequency of exposure

4.   smoking in conjunction with asbestos fibre exposure

5.   to which type of fibre exposure occurred

In estimating the total of future Mesothelioma deaths in the UK, the HSE understood that contracting the disease depended largely upon some of these risk factors.

It is not necessary to know exactly what each parameter stands for but the above formula can roughly be translated as the following:

Mesothelioma total in any given year =  [ Age-specific exposure potential (as a relative figure (cohort of 20-29 yrs = 1)) * general exposure level (ie. total asbestos fibres to which exposed that year) * cumulative exposure risks since risk year minus the time lag of onset of the disease * the half life of asbestos fibres in the lungs ] * all adjusted for by the proportion of Mesothelioma cases properly diagnosed and all the summation of the figures for each age cohort.

As can be seen, the first 3 risk factors listed form the basis of the HSE’s equation. Men exposed to asbestos throughout their life are split into different age cohorts, and different general exposure levels have been calculated for different years of asbestos production.

Smoking, the fourth risk factor, is a hard variable to account for. Although undoubtedly confounding the disease, it is arguable that surrounded by asbestos fibres, smoking would not have brought on Mesothelioma, merely exacerbated it.

Instead, it is the fifth risk factor that has brought the credibility of the HSE’s formula, and all associated statistics drawn from its application, to its knees. The formula does not account for the very different toxicities of the two major types of asbestos fibres.

There is no doubt that the amphibole types of commercially used asbestos fibres (crocidolite and amosite) are hazardous to human health. Their fibres are short and sharp and once inhaled into the lungs are unlikely to ever be expelled. However, the serpentine types of commercially used asbestos fibres (chrysotile) are soft and silky and are expelled easily and rapidly from the lungs. This results in a very different toxicity of the fibres.

To predict the future burden of Mesothelioma, the HSE needed to estimate how long an asbestos fibre would remain in the lungs once inhaled. They set the variable for the ‘half life in the human lungs’ of all asbestos types to 1000 years, representing zero clearance.

To justify this decision, the HSE argued that although there were some papers suggesting chrysotile (white asbestos) was less toxic than its amphibole counterparts (blue and brown asbestos), it would “only have a minor effect on the model” as chrysotile still had a long half-life in the lungs.

In the years since the HSE first created this formula, the serpentine type of commercially used asbestos fibre (chrysotile), has been scientifically proven to have a half-life of just 15 days (Bernstein, et. al); or in more technical terms, 0.042 years.

To highlight how this mistake by the HSE has seriously affected the outcome of the Mesothelioma death statistics, it is necessary to show the enormous discrepancy that occurs in just one variable when the difference between a half-life of 1000 years and 0.042 years is ignored.

The variable accommodating for the toxicity of the asbestos fibres in the HSE formula is the following:

0.5 l / H    

The 0.5 represents the half life exponential

The ‘l’ represents the relative risk exposure since the year of contraction (a relative exposure of approximately 1, multiplied by the time lag in years, approx. 20) i.e. a figure in the region of 20.

The ‘H’ represents the half-life of the asbestos fibres in human lungs (in years).

Amphibole    H = 1000.     0.5 20/1000      = 0.5 0.02       = 0.986

Chrysotile    H = 0.042.     0.5 20/0.042    = 0.5 476.19    = 0.000 .0000… 000, etc.

Using the half-life of the chrysotile fibres as 0.042 years, the formula 0.5 l / H will always yield the most infinitely small fraction; in practical terms, zero.

Mathematically speaking, any variables in a linear bracket of an equation reduced to a number so near 0 will alter the entire outcome of the formula whatever the other parameters. In other words, 0 multiplied by anything is still 0.

Whatever figures the other parameters in the linear equation, the short half-life and its effect on the ‘toxicity’ parameter will always result in a Mesothelioma death rate from chrysotile exposure of practically nil.

The HSE’s own formula already starts to disprove their future Mesothelioma predictions, just by the correct application.

Although in the past the ratio of amphibole exposure to chrysotile exposure may have been fairly even due to amphibole mining as well as amphibole product manufacture, mining was phased out in the mid 20th century. Since then, only 10% of asbestos exposure has been to the hazardous amphibole fibres, the remaining 90% to the serpentine fibres, chrysotile.

As 90% of all asbestos exposure will yield a result of no measurable future deaths (being to chrysotile fibres only with a half life of 0.042 years), only 10% of the previous HSE estimates (those relating to amphiboles with a half life of 1000 years) will still be applicable as the risk of future Mesotheliomas.

The linear structure of the HSE formula dictates that decreasing the exposure by a tenth will also decrease the future burden by a tenth. Peak deaths will therefore be in the region of 180 rather than 1800.

The HSE need to revise their predictions of future deaths. Whilst the risks of the hazardous 10% of asbestos are imposed on the remaining 90%, there will be a greatly inflated idea of how many deaths should be occurring from this disease.

This will give rise to the unscrupulous few in the asbestos removal industry, legal profession, medical profession, media, to name but a few, who are capable of converting concern over an entirely fictional ‘epidemic’ into capital.

There is no doubt that there will continue to be cases of Mesothelioma but in amongst all the statistical manipulation, it is necessary to remember Mesothelioma is a disease that has a latency period of anything from 15 to 60 years. Using 20 years as an average for the onset of the disease, most current Mesothelioma deaths are from exposure to amphibole asbestos fibres prior to current legislation. It is a disease whose cause is confined to the past.

The incidence of genuine asbestos related cases will decrease sharply as the potential amphibole exposure exceeds the latency period and decreases to 0, and only the chrysotile exposure potential remains.

Clinical Evidence

The clinical evidence of what is happening in the real world tells a very different story. Firstly the real mortality figure is approx 1200 deaths per annum.  This is still a lot especially if you are about to be one of them and there is no doubt that Mesothelioma is a terrible disease.  However over 95% of all Mesothelioma occur in workers born before 1940.

This is not a modern disease and no carpenter or plumber or general builder working in today’s environment is likely to get an asbestos related disease. Anyone who will develop an asbestos related disease today or in the future already has it and if all asbestos materials disappeared overnight it would not stop the incidence of asbestos related disease.  The number of actual events is falling. The apparent rise in cases is from the increased number of spurious claims cases as a result of this fraudulent advertising.  The dreadful effect of this scam is to deny real victims of fair compensation and to scare the general public into unnecessary expensive removal.  

The series of media releases is not about saving lives it is about persuading workers to claim for asbestos related exposure.  This is a £4 billion per year deception and the unions who have paid for this advert get £250 per referral from the asbestos claims lawyers.  It is no coincidence that all the main newspapers and many local ones are all carrying separate adverts for claims lawyers to help workers who feel they have been exposed.  In the USA where the same deception is run 90% of all claims have now been identified by the US congress as spurious.

In 1989 the USA banned asbestos for all the same reasons used in the HSE advert.  In 1991 it was appealed in the US High Court of the 5th Circuit and the ban was overturned.  The judge stated that more people will die from the inhalation of tooth picks in the USA than they will from white asbestos. [I can send the full judgement if you wish.]

In 1999 the HSE got white asbestos banned in the UK. [White asbestos materials make up 90% of all asbestos materials in the UK.] In 1975 blue asbestos was banned because it was suspected of causing 4000 deaths per year.  In 1999 the HSE misled the public and Parliament into believing that white asbestos posed the same risk.  I have pasted below a suppressed Gov paper clearly showing that this was a falsehood [HSC/06/55].

The HSE used the non peer reviewed research of Prof J Peto to justify their claims of 4500 deaths. Our response was as under:

1.  I agree that it is impossible to differentiate between an asbestos cancer and a smoking one.  However the HSE is well aware, as their own mortality statistics confirm, that asbestos lung cancer deaths are as a direct result of the victim developing asbestosis first.  Asbestosis is a notifiable disease under UK law and remains the primary cause of the victim going on to develop lung cancer.  There are between only 80 to 117 asbestosis lung cancer deaths per year.  This difference between the clinical facts and the HSE commercially contrived ‘estimates’ should be explained in any promotion to avoid confusion and unnecessary fear.

2 The research carried out by Prof Julian Peto at the ICL was sponsored by the same lobby group as sponsored the adverts under complaint. [ This should have been declared ] This research was reviewed by Dr A Gibbs a world leading histopathologist, Dr Hoskins [toxicologist] and Prof Pooley a Mineralogist and Dr K Browne.  The research was considered flawed on the basis that Peto made the assumption that as 90% of all asbestos was chrysotile then 90% of all deaths were as a result of exposure to chrysotile [white]. Peto in fact assessed the wrong asbestos.  The HSE did not publish the critical peer reviews and have been made fully aware of the error on many occasions.

3 The HSE keep referring to ‘asbestos’ as if it were a mineral class.  It’s only a commercial name used to describe 2 main classes of fibrous silicate.  The 2 groups have vastly different levels. The deliberate confusion caused by referring to both groups as ‘asbestos’ gives rise to the fear that 90% of asbestos is a major health risk .  The HSE own research confirms that the risks from white asbestos are virtually zero.

In conclusion I would like, if possible, your judgement to reflect that the HSE should not use the genuine risks associated with raw blue and brown asbestos fibres to be promoted as the same risk as exposure to materials made from white asbestos which makes up 85% to 90% of all asbestos products. If further adverts are broadcast that still promote this confusion I will again have to submit a complaint to yourselves.

The HSE spent 9 months sending all there evidence and the ASA was not persuaded as to its accuracy and upheld all 5 of our complaints. 

Asbestos Watchdog

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