The Government’s chief scientific advisor on health issues including those relating to the risks of being exposed to asbestos has reaffirmed the status of white asbestos or chrysotile as a Class 1 carcinogenic substance.
The minister for work and pensions and former Conservative party leader, Iain Duncan-Smith approached Sir John Beddington, head of the Government Office for Science to review any evidence that exists which would justify any change to the international approach to dealing with the classification of white asbestos. His review would then allow ministers to revaluate current UK Health & Safety legislation.
Sir John liaised with other representatives and experts from the HSE, Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and concluded that while exposure to amphibole asbestos or “blue and brown” asbestos was more potent, white asbestos dust inhalation was still a danger to health.
The experts acknowledged that white asbestos fibres break down in the lung more quickly than amphibole forms of asbestos they also sounded a warning, confirming chrysotile’s toxicological action is unclear and highlighted uncertainty about whether the carcinogenicity of asbestos fibres is linked to how long they remain in the lung, or to extent of exposure over time.
The experts advised that it is not possible “to determine the threshold level below which exposure to pure chrysotile could be deemed “safe” for human health. The same applied for exposure to chrysotile from cement during removal and disposal activities.”
The team concluded that there is “no justification for an imminent change to the international scientific consensus on the classification of chrysotile as a Class 1 carcinogen”.
This expert view is in stark contrast to the controversial stance adopted by some quarters of Fleet Street.
The journalist, Christopher Booker of the Daily Telegraph has described the notion that thousands of people die each year as a result of exposure to white asbestos as a “scare story, which not only defies best scientific evidence but also the earlier findings of the Government’s own advisers, has become the basis of rackets costing hundreds of millions of pounds a year in bogus insurance claims and fraudulent contractors’ charges for work which is unnecessary”.
In the run up to the launch of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, the current speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP expressed a similar doubting view on the risks posed by white asbestos and the potential costs to businesses confronted with the need to remove asbestos using licensed contractors.
House of Commons
We have dealt with hundreds of cases for mesothelioma sufferers who endured predominantly white asbestos exposure during the course of their employment during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Any suggestion that they will have been exposed to more than minimal quantities of amphibole asbestos during such later decades will inevitably be denied by companies and insurers with the aid of Defendant engineering evidence, clearly establishing a link between white asbestos exposure and the development of incurable mesothelioma.
The scientific view on the toxicity of white asbestos as a carcinogenic substance has now been given solidified further by Sir John Beddington’s findings.
We are always concerned to note that the critics who raise doubt on the harmfulness of white asbestos always cite the commercial harm being caused to businesses and insurers as a result of what we see as necessary safeguards being put into place.
Surely even the doubters need to accept that the cost to human life has to be protected above any attempts to ensure the profits of multi-national companies and insurers remain unharmed.
The cost to human life relating to asbestos exposure has already been far too great and any attempt to protet people from suffering at its hand in the future should be welcomed.