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Fatal Cracks Appear in Asbestos Scam as HSE Shifts its Ground

December 11, 2005

It is not often that a newspaper columnist can claim to have played a part in a change to the law that could save this country several billion pounds. But such will be the effect of a proposal by the Health and Safety Executive to end an absurdity in Britain's asbestos law which was originally highlighted here.

It is not often that a newspaper columnist can claim to have played a part in a change to the law that could save this country several billion pounds. But such will be the effect of a proposal by the Health and Safety Executive to end an absurdity in Britain's asbestos law which was originally highlighted here.

Since 2002 this column has campaigned to expose the commercial racket created on the back of a legal muddle over different types of asbestos. Thanks to a scientific blunder, the law has confused those types of asbestos (blue and brown) which cause serious damage to human health, with much the commoner products containing "white asbestos", a wholly different mineral posing no medical risk.

One such product, found in millions of homes, is artex, a textured plaster applied to walls and ceilings, containing amounts of white asbestos so small that they are no danger to anyone. When the HSE drew up its 2002 Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations, it was persuaded by the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA) to include artex as a high-risk material, only to be handled by HSE-licensed contractors, such as members of ARCA.

ARCA admits that the inclusion of artex in the regulations provides a third of its members' income: hundreds of millions of pounds a year, paid by householders, businesses, housing associations and local councils, for work which in many cases is not necessary or which could be carried out by ordinary builders for a fraction of the cost.

The expert who has done more than anyone to expose this absurdity is John Bridle. The value of his work was recently recognised when he was made an honorary professor by the Russian Occupational Health Institute, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
When Prof Bridle began to expose the scientific flaws in the regulation of asbestos he was in direct conflict with the HSE. But his marshalling of the evidence, backed by an array of top scientists, has been so authoritative that he and the HSE are now closely collaborating. One recommendation, expressed in new draft regulations, is that artex should no longer be classed as a high-risk material.

The practical effects of this can scarcely be exaggerated. Recently Prof Bridle, on behalf of Asbestos Watchdog (www.asbestoswatchdog. co.uk), the body he launched through this column, was asked by a west London council to inspect just one block of flats containing artex, which a contractor had quoted £720,000 to remove. He found no need, for legal or safety reasons, to remove the artex. Since the council has thousands of such flats, without Prof Bridle's intervention or a change in the law, it might face a bill for billions of pounds.

ARCA is lobbying hard against any change in the law. But the HSE, resting its case on scientific facts, is standing its ground. If the new law comes into effect, as planned, this will represent a victory for common sense for which the HSE will deserve the nation's thanks.

 


Christopher Booker

The Sunday Telegraph

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