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Archive for September 2008

Booker’s co-author springs to his defence – with more misinformation on asbestos

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Following George Monbiot’s damning exposé of Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker’s bogus claims about asbestos and global warming, Booker’s co-author Richard North has written a response on his “EU Referendum” blog – condemning Monbiot for what he calls “the devil’s techniques”.

North defends Booker’s use of a research paper from 2000 by two Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statisticians, Hodgson and Darnton to support his longstanding claim that white (chrysotile) asbestos poses no significant risk to human health.

According to North:

What the authors do write, in respect of the use of asbestos cement, is that the risk is so low as to be “probably insignificant”. The paper then assesses the risk of acquiring lung cancer from “cumulative exposure”, suggesting that “the case for a threshold – i.e., zero, or at least very low risk – is arguable.”

Booker, therefore, has paraphrased the quotes, conveying their general import, his mistake being to put own words in quotes. But is he wrong? Not at all. The sense of what Hodgson and Darton are writing is accurately conveyed.

North’s account of Hodgson and Darnton’s conclusions constrasts sharply with that of the HSE, who reported back in 2002 that:

Their paper stated that whilst the risks from chrysotile were significantly less than those from amosite or crocidolite, they were not negligible. Furthermore, they acknowledged the considerable degree of uncertainty in the quantification of these risks. This uncertainty would make any uncoupling of chysotile from asbestos legislation highly unwise.

North creates the impression that Hodgson and Darnton made a specific judgement about the risks posed by “asbestos cement” (as opposed to other asbestos products). But the paper appears to do nothing of the kind. According to Trevor Ogden, the editor of the journal in which the paper was published, who recently commented on the issue in a discussion on the New Statesman website:

The paper does not say that the risks from asbestos cement are probably insignificant – it uses this phrase for the chrysotile risks at the lowest exposures. At higher (but still low) exposures, the authors gave estimates of lung cancer risk about 30-40 times lower than those from crocidolite, and did not regard this as insignificant…

In seeking to defend Booker’s bogus claims, North has seized on Hodgson and Darnton’s statement of the risks from chrysotile at the lowest exposures, and sought to portray this as a general conclusion about the risk from “white asbestos cement” at any exposure.

George Monbiot endorses “Don’t Get Fooled Again”

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I’m delighted that “Don’t Get Fooled Again” has been given a generous endorsement by the Guardian columnist and campaigner George Monbiot: “This is an exceptional book: rigorous, witty and beautifully-written. If you want to know how the world works, you must read it.”

Written by Richard Wilson

September 30, 2008 at 12:01 pm

“Don’t Get Fooled Again” reviewed in the Hindustan Times

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From Kushalrani Gulab in the Hindustan Times

Looking at “the myriad ways we can deceive ourselves — and be deceived by others,” the book begins by telling us briefly that we’re usually predisposed to having an idealised view of ourselves and everything that makes up our identities, and then gets into some seriously scary stuff. Stuff like how so many of us delude ourselves into taking people in authority — whether government types, politicians, business people, scientists and ‘experts’ or the media — so seriously that we don’t bother to cross-check, investigate or question what they (or frankly, even what we ourselves) say or do.

Now that we’re dealing with some hardcore terrorism and communalism problems in India, I was particularly gripped by the chapter titled ‘Heroes and Villains’. This uses the example of the US treatment of captured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib to show how easy it is for people to be so single-minded in their zeal to ‘punish evil’ that all rules of humanity go flying. While there’s nothing I’d like better than to have terrorists and communalists caught, tried and punished — and I have to say, the crackdowns do seem justified — I’ve been troubled by the raids on Muslim localities, the controversial Nanavati Report and the fact that, despite assurances from the Centre and the state governments, not much seems to have been accomplished in tracking down the people responsible for the recent violence against Christians, even though the Bajrang Dal has been indicted.

Don’t Get Fooled Again can be ordered with free delivery worldwide from the Book Depository.

Written by Richard Wilson

September 30, 2008 at 5:37 am

Campaigners warn of “asbestos timebomb” in India

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From the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat.

Report warns India is “on the cusp of a devastating asbestos cancer epidemic”

Record and rising asbestos imports to India will translate to thousands of asbestos-related cancer deaths each year and are already responsible for “a hidden epidemic,” an expert report has revealed. Exposing the Indian Government’s collusion with asbestos stakeholders at home and abroad, the authors call for an immediate national ban on all asbestos use.

“India’s Asbestos Time Bomb,” published today (September 25, 2008) by a coalition of Asian campaign and research organisations, global union federations and the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), calculates that total asbestos usage in India since 1980 exceeds 6 million tonnes, matching the amount used in the UK in its entire industrial history. India is far and away the world’s largest importer of asbestos.

“The UK is now in the grip of its largest ever industrial disease epidemic, with between 5,000 and 10,000 estimated to be dying of asbestos cancers every year,” says report editor Laurie Kazan-Allen. “India, with ineffective regulation on asbestos use, is on the verge of a much larger and more devastating epidemic. Because it can take 30 years or more for asbestos-related cancers to emerge, India faces an inevitable and sharp escalation in cancer cases over the next three decades. No one is safe!”

Annual imports of asbestos to India now exceed a quarter of a million tonnes, and have climbed rapidly over the last decade. “We estimate asbestos cancers already claim thousands of lives each year in India, but this will certainly exceed 10,000 cases a year by 2040,” says Kazan-Allen. “This will put an incredible strain on families, communities and India’s medical system.

A hidden epidemic exists due to medical ignorance and government intransigence; in light of the dearth of serious measures to alert workers and consumers of the asbestos hazard, things can only get worse. India does not have a national cancer registry or any system to record asbestos cancers or asbestos exposures, so the problem remains unrecognised and unaddressed. But instead of acting to remedy these failings, the report warns that India is actively encouraging asbestos use, both at home and globally.

India, working closely with asbestos stakeholders in Canada, has been instrumental in blocking a United Nations move to impose health information disclosures on exports of chrysotile asbestos. When the UN next considers applying global right-to-know rules on chrysotile at its Rotterdam Convention meeting in Rome this October, it is likely that both nations will again move to veto any effort to require exporters to warn of the risks posed by using chrysotile asbestos.

“There is an unimaginable and unconscionable level of ignorance of the asbestos hazard in India, a situation that is a great boon to Indian asbestos companies that are benefiting from huge levels of economic growth,” says IBAS’s Laurie Kazan-Allen. “The government is a willing conspirator in this state of affairs, with devastating consequences for the health of its citizens. But politicians and asbestos peddlers should take heed – we aim to see the industry wither and die and its apologists face the courts for knowingly and in the name of profit pushing the world’s worst ever industrial killer.”

Written by Richard Wilson

September 30, 2008 at 1:17 am

Stephen Colbert on “truthiness”…

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“That’s where the truth lies – right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up.

Now, I know some of you are going to say, ‘I did look it up, and that’s not true.’ That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.” 

- Stephen Colbert, White House Correspondents Association dinner, April 2006

Written by Richard Wilson

September 28, 2008 at 6:57 pm

Telegraph publishes 39th article parroting corporate pseudoscience on asbestos

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Over the past six-and-half years, the Sunday Telegraph journalist Christopher Booker has written at least 38 articles in which he downplays the dangers of asbestos.

Booker’s initial claim, back in 2002, was that white asbestos had, ‘by one of the most unfortunate sleights of hand in scientific history’, been subjected to the same ‘demonisation’ as the lethal blue and brown varieties, ‘just because it shares the same name’. The ‘soft, silky fibres’ of white asbestos, Booker explained, were ‘chemically identical to talcum powder’.

Booker’s claims are strikingly similar to those of the asbestos industry, which for years has been fighting off compensation claims, and lobbying for prohibitions on white asbestos to be eased. One of his main sources has been John Bridle, a South Wales businessman with links to the industry-funded ‘Chrysotile Institute’, who in 2005 was convicted under the Trade Descriptions Act of making false claims about his professional qualifications.

Booker first described John Bridle as ‘UK scientific spokesman for the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association’. By 2003, he was ‘one of the country’s leading asbestos experts’. By 2006 he was ‘Prof John Bridle’, ‘Britain’s leading practical asbestos expert’, and a ‘knowledgeable and brave whistleblower’, who had helped to expose a conspiracy by French and Belgian asbestos-replacement manufacturers to scare the public into removing white asbestos from their homes on the basis of a ‘non-existent risk’.

But a 2006 investigation by the BBC’s You and Yours programme accused John Bridle of basing his reputation on ‘lies about his credentials, unaccredited tests, and self aggrandisement’.

Far from posing ‘no measurable risk to health’, white asbestos is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a ‘group one carcinogen’. Based on a series of peer-reviewed studies, the British government, the European Union, the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation all believe that white asbestos is unsafe, and dangerous to health. Even now, asbestos in its various forms is thought to be responsible for nearly 4,000 deaths in the UK each year.

See Miningwatch: “Refuting Industry Claims That Chrysotile Asbestos Is Safe”.

…and the UK Health and Safety Executive: “HSE confirms white asbestos remains a threat”.

This week, the Guardian’s George Monbiot ran a damning exposé of Booker’s “dangerous misinformation” on asbestos – and global warming, highlighting his promotion of the bogus ‘expert’ John Bridle and his misrepresenting of peer-reviewed scientific research in support of his claims.

In response, the Sunday Telegraph has today published yet more bogus scientific claims from Christopher Booker. Booker alleges that the risk from white asbestos cement is insignificant because ‘fibres cannot physically be released from the cement in the “respirable” form that can damage human lungs’.

This claim was examined in detail in an investigation by the UK government’s Health and Safety Laboratory (part of the Health and Safety Executive), in November 2007. The HSL found that:

The analysis carried out showed that the asbestos cement contained fibres of chrysotile asbestos and released chrysotile asbestos fibres to air when sufficiently disturbed…

Claims being made in Internet articles and in some sections of the newspaper industry are not supported by this investigation.

Epidemiology has shown that chrysotile is a human carcinogen. Animal experiments have shown no evidence that the chrysotile asbestos extracted from the weathered surface of A/C products is less carcinogenic than UICC standard chrysotile asbestos…

According to a survey released earlier this year by the British Lung Foundation, less than a third of workers such as builders, plumbers and carpenters – those most at risk of disturbing absestos materials through their work – were aware that asbestos exposure can cause cancer. Just over one in ten knew that it could kill them.

In this context, for the Sunday Telegraph to publish 39 separate articles misrepresenting the science seems both naive and irresponsible.

It’s difficult to know what’s driving Booker’s determination to spread misinformation on this life-and-death health issue, or what it will take to get him to stop. But the dangers seem quite clear.

More on Booker’s bogus claims about asbestos

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Alongside his more grandiose claims about the “magic mineral” (which I highlight in detail in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”), Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has repeatedly alleged – echoing John Bridle – that white asbestos (chrysotile) cement is safe because the toxic fibres cannot physically be released from the cement in a “respirable” form.

This claim was examined in detail in a lab investigation by the Health and Safety Executive, in November 2007. The HSL found that:

As would be expected in a sample of asbestos cement most of the chrysotile fibres were encapsulated in the cement matrix, often as quite large fibre bundles which are clearly visible to the eye.

When the cement is broken or crushed the chrysotile fibres are released from the cement. The fibres released were examined by analytical transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to determine whether they had been altered and were no longer identifiable as chrysotile asbestos….

The analysis carried out showed that the asbestos cement contained fibres of chrysotile asbestos and released chrysotile asbestos fibres to air when sufficiently disturbed…

Claims being made in Internet articles and in some sections of the newspaper industry are not supported by this investigation.

Epidemiology has shown that chrysotile is a human carcinogen. Animal experiments have shown no evidence that the chrysotile asbestos extracted from the weathered surface of A/C products is less carcinogenic than UICC standard chrysotile asbestos…

See also: “Booker’s 38 bogus claims promoting white asbestos”, and “Bridle unbuttoned”.