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Debate - Asbestos

COMMENT

A coming amendment to the European Control of Asbestos at Work Act will mean that employers will have a duty to manage asbestos in their buildings.

This week we ask: Does white asbestos in existing properties present a threat to the public?

Yes Bill McDonald, chair of the Health & Safety Commission.

White asbestos (chrysotile) is classified as a Category 1 carcinogen, not just in the UK but internationally (International Programme on chemical Safety, World Health Organisation, 1998).

The most recent and comprehensive study on the relative risks of the different types of asbestos fibres concluded that whilst the risks of white asbestos were less than blue and brown asbestos fibres, white asbestos gave rise to a real risk of cancer to maintenance workers (Hodgson and Darnton, Annals of Occupational Hygiene, December 2000). This study was peer reviewed internationally before being published.

White asbestos is like talc only in the same way that coal is like diamond - chemically similar, but worlds apart in physical form. It is the fine fibrous nature of asbestos fibres (of all forms) that makes them so dangerous.

Research has shown that the common alternatives to white asbestos, including cellulose fibres, are all safer than white asbestos and should be used in preference (Institute of Environment and Health, 1999). The 'duty to manage' asbestos proposals are a reasonable response to the risk:

Over a quarter of those now dying from asbestos related diseases worked as building and maintenance workers. If nothing is done to control the risk from asbestos in buildings, nearly 4,000 lives will be lost over the next 50 years.

The new duty will require occupiers and owners to find out whether there is asbestos in their buildings and - depending on what condition it is in - protect people from breathing in asbestos fibres from it.

The proposals would not cost £80bn, as this assumes total removal of all asbestos.

HSE strongly advises that asbestos be left in place if undamaged. The real costs will be under £5bn. This sounds like a lot of money, but not when you consider the duty will apply to virtually all commercial buildings in the UK.

Many of the softer or friable building products that give rise to most concern contain mixtures of white and other more dangerous forms of fibre (blue and brown).

Including white asbestos in the duty to manage proposals would add little to the overall cost. In two separate consultation exercises there was broad support for the proposals from a wide range of respondents.

Any delay or watering down of the proposals now will mean unnecessary suffering in the future.

No John Bridle, UK scientist for the Association of Cement Products Producers Association.

What is asbestos? The very word is guaranteed to provoke a reaction from the man in the street. That reaction is usually one of fear and loathing, the former due to the dreadful deaths caused by this unusual material, the latter out of the criminal neglect of this known danger in the past by big business.

So when the HSE recommended a total ban on all asbestos effective in November 1999 you would have thought that it was on to a pretty solid wicket. It seemed to be protecting the nation's health and attacking the evil capitalist exploiters of the British workers.

Surprisingly, HSE has done neither. In fact it is now supporting the profits of the same vested interests and could be creating genuine health problems with the proposals where none existed before.

Consequently the UK population and business community are facing the biggest tax ever in the history of modern Britain, currently estimated at £80bn. To make matters worse these costs are to be imposed by unelected civil servants working closely with the commercial interests that will benefit most from the new regulations.

So what has gone wrong. The first problem is the confusion over the types of asbestos. The amphiboles (blue & brown) are fibrous silicate of iron and are akin to shards of glass needles that lodge in the lungs for many years.

Serpentine (white asbestos) on the other hand is a fibrous silicate of magnesium and forms soft silky fibres that dissolve readily in the lungs. In fact white asbestos is virtually identical to talcum powder. The HSE agrees this fact but stresses that it is the fibrous nature of the white that causes the problem. It omits to mention that all fibres cause lung problems and as HSE refers to asbestos in most of its definitions as dust the similarity to talc becomes confirmed.

Cellulose fibres as in blown recycled paper have a potential to cause lung disease many times greater than white asbestos.

White asbestos cement accounts for 85% of all asbestos containing materials in the UK.

Handling it causes no more danger than its non-asbestos cement alternatives.

Remember the £80bn cost and not a single life will be saved.

Nice profit for someone.

The facts lAsbestos was commonly used as a sprayed coating, a lagging material, insulation boards and sheeting.

lAsbestos cement removal does not require a licensed contractor. The asbestos licensing regulations do not apply to asbestos cement products.

lAsbestos related diseases already kill 3,000 people each year in the UK. This is expected to rise to 10,000, with 250,000 in the European Union over the next 35 years.

lThere is no cure for asbestos related diseases.

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