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Archive for October 2008

Outgoing chief prosecutor warns against “mediaeval delusions” and “the paraphernalia of paranoia”

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Ken MacDonald, the outgoing chief prosecutor of England and Wales, has warned against paranoid fears over terrorism being used to justify giving the government ever more “sweeping powers”, the BBC reports.

“We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom’s back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security state”, he said in his final speech.

Following the heavy defeat of government proposals to allow itself to detain people for 42 days without charge, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has announced plans to create a giant database to monitor the telephone, email and internet usage of everyone in the UK – ostensibly on the basis that this will help to fight terrorism. Opposition parties have described the plan as “Orwellian”.

In his speech, Ken Macdonald urged resistance to what he called the “paraphernalia of paranoia”:

“Of course, you can have the Guantanamo model. You can have the model which says that we cannot afford to give people their rights, that rights are too expensive because of the nature of the threats we are facing.

“Or you can say, as I prefer to, that our rights are priceless. That the best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions, rather than to degrade them.

“We would do well not to insult ourselves and all of our institutions and our processes of law in the face of these medieval delusions.”

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the strange nexus between journalists who whip up public fears over terrorism in order to sell more newspapers, and politicians who exaggerate the threat so as to justify their demands for ‘sweeping powers’ to invade our privacy, evade public scrutiny, and control our behaviour.

Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh on US atrocities in Iraq

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From UC Berkeley News

In the evening’s most emotional moment, Hersh talked about a call he had gotten from a first lieutenant in charge of a unit stationed halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border. His group was bivouacking outside of town in an agricultural area, and had hired 30 or so Iraqis to guard a local granary. A few weeks passed. They got to know the men they hired, and to like them. Then orders came down from Baghdad that the village would be “cleared.” Another platoon from the soldier’s company came and executed the Iraqi granary guards. All of them.

“He said they just shot them one by one. And his people, and he, and the villagers of course, went nuts,” Hersh said quietly. “He was hysterical, totally hysterical. He went to the company captain, who said, ‘No, you don’t understand, that’s a kill. We got 36 insurgents. Don’t you read those stories when the Americans say we had a combat maneuver and 15 insurgents were killed?’

“It’s shades of Vietnam again, folks: body counts,” Hersh continued. “You know what I told him? I said, ‘Fella, you blamed the captain, he knows that you think he committed murder, your troops know that their fellow soldiers committed murder. Shut up. Complete your tour. Just shut up! You’re going to get a bullet in the back.’ And that’s where we are in this war.”

Written by Richard Wilson

October 25, 2008 at 5:00 am

Weapons of Mass Derision

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Gordon Brown’s controversial use of the “Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act” to freeze Icelandic assets in Britain was taken by many here in the UK as further evidence that ‘sweeping powers’ given to the government ostensibly to fight terrorism will inevitably being used for other purposes.

But the move has also triggered an outpouring of mass derision among Icelanders, with 12% of the population of the country signing an online petition, and hundreds putting together their own quirky photographic protests, many of them with a distinctively Icelandic feel.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that mockery is a vital tool in the fight against fearmongering politicians who seek to enhance their own powers or evade scrutiny by exploiting public anxieties over terrorism.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 24, 2008 at 10:46 pm

UN treaty body considers further restrictions on chrysotile asbestos

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Interestingly, Christopher Booker’s latest article downplaying the health risks of white asbestos comes just before the week in which the UN will debate whether to place further restrictions on international trade in the material. The 120 member Rotterdam Convention is “aimed at helping developing countries more effectively manage potentially harmful imported substances”. If state parties agree to place chrysotile on the treaty’s “watch list” of hazardous materials, then any country exporting it will be obliged to ensure that the recipient country has given its explicit consent to receive it.

Russia and Canada, both major exporters of chrysotile asbestos, are strongly opposed to any such moves, but a debate is raging in Canada over the government’s longstanding efforts to block restrictions on the asbestos industry – including its multi-million dollar subsidy to the industry lobby group, the Chrysotile Institute, to which both “Professor” John Bridle and Christopher Booker have been linked.

Canadian Medical Association condemns government support for Chrysotile Institute’s “death-dealing charade”

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From the Canadian Medical Association Journal

Asbestos mortality: a Canadian export

Next week, a handful of Canadian bureaucrats will fly to Rome for the 4th Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention, a treaty governing trade in substances that harm human health and the environment. Their mission? If past experience provides an accurate guide, they will be there, on behalf of the Government of Canada, to protect this country’s asbestos industry, even if that means contributing to asbestos-related illnesses and deaths in the developing world.

That is a harsh indictment, but Canada is the only Western democracy to have consistently opposed international efforts to regulate the global trade in asbestos.1–3 And the government of Canada has done so with shameful political manipulation of science.

Years ago, Australia, Chile and the European Union proposed adding chrysotile (the predominant asbestos fibre used today) to the list of substances governed by the Rotterdam Convention. The convention requires the exporting government to notify the importing government before a dangerous substance is shipped in their direction, so that the importing government can exercise informed consent about whether to receive the substance.4 In essence, it is a regime of politeness. The convention does not ban trade in hazardous substances and need not take away even a gram from Canada’s asbestos exports — unless, of course, an importing country’s government, when asked for consent, thought better of it and said no.

You might think that Canada’s government could have no possible objection to the convention and the polite rule of notice and informed consent. Yet you would be wrong. For several years, Canada has led a ferocious diplomatic opposition to listing chrysotile under the convention. Not a single Western democracy supports Canada’s position, so Canada has made allies of a few less picky countries including Iran, Russia and Zimbabwe.5

According to the Rotterdam Convention’s review committee, which assesses substances before they are listed under the convention, “chrysotile is unequivocally a human carcinogen.”6 The World Health Organization (WHO) and other international agencies agree.7–9 Even Canada’s government acknowledges that “all forms of asbestos fibres, including chrysotile, are carcinogenic.”5

However, Canada argues that “chrysotile is a less potent carcinogen … and consequently poses a lower health risk.”5 In an argument redolent of the tobacco industry’s playbook on light cigarettes, Canada defends chrysotile on the basis that it is safer than other forms of asbestos.

But to say that chrysotile is safer is not to say it is safe. To be sure, chrysotile is chemically different than other forms of asbestos, called amphiboles. Exposure to amphibole asbestos causes notorious occupational and environmental illness and death: WHO estimates 100 000 preventable deaths occur globally each year, mainly from mesothelioma and lung cancer.7 Whether the same diseases would result if asbestos was limited to pure chrysotile is endlessly debated.

Yet the debate is largely irrelevant. It is questionable whether “pure chrysotile” even exists: mines are not pristine environments and often contain mixed chrysotile and amphibole. Occupational exposure to chrysotile with even a trace amount of amphibole contamination (0.002%–0.310%) is sufficient for amphibole to accumulate in the lungs over a lifetime.10 Disturbingly, Canada’s government does not regularly monitor exported asbestos for amphibole contamination, so its claim to purvey a pure, safe product is made without evidence and is doubtful.

The fact that chrysotile can be contaminated with amphibole is an inconvenient truth that is often overlooked in industry-funded studies (see related News article, page 886).11 It is only by discounting the industry-funded publications that a clearer picture emerges. In studies of exposure to putatively pure chrysotile, there is a lesser, but still significant, rise in lung cancer and mesothelioma.12–15 In the latest meta-analysis, some chrysotile sources appear equally potent as amphibole in causing lung cancer.16,17 It is no wonder that WHO recommends that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.”7

And stopping the use of asbestos is precisely what Canada is doing — but only in Canada.

In a practice that reeks of hypocrisy, Canada has limited the use of asbestos to prevent the exposure of Canadians to the danger, but it continues to be the world’s second largest exporter of asbestos.18 Fully 96% of the asbestos that is produced in Canada is for export, primarily to developing countries such as India, Indonesia and Thailand, where it is mainly turned into asbestos cement for construction.5

Canada maintains that its export trade need not be dangerous, if the importing countries practise safe use and put “regulations, programs and practices equivalent to Canada’s … in place.” This argument seems self-serving. Most developed countries, including Canada, have concluded that their occupational health and safety systems were no match for handling asbestos safely, and so they transitioned to using effective and affordable alternatives.19 For Canada to pretend that India, Thailand and Indonesia can succeed in managing asbestos safely, when developed countries have failed, is fanciful.

Canada is more than just a major asbestos exporter. To keep the export industry alive, it has become an avid asbestos cheerleader. Ottawa has poured more than $19 million into the Chrysotile Institute, an advocacy group formerly called the Asbestos Institute before that name became unfashionable.5 Along with funds from the Government of Quebec, the institute is dedicated to promoting the safe-use canard and defending the beleaguered mineral from its critics.

Strangely, Canada’s largesse runs out when it comes to helping developing countries deal with the decades-long aftermath of asbestos exposure. There are “no Government of Canada chrysotile asbestos programs that provide direct financial support to developing countries.”5 It is subterranean ethics where Canada takes the wealth from asbestos exports, but abandons developing countries to their own devices to care for people made ill by asbestos or to institute alternatives to asbestos cement, which appear to be about 30% more expensive.20

A year ago, it appeared that Canada might rethink its position. Health Canada convened an international committee of scientific experts to study the risks of chrysotile exposure. The expert committee delivered its report in March, and Health Canada promised to publish it soon after. Yet as this issue goes to press, the report has been kept secret for over half a year, and sources tell CMAJ the blockage is in the prime minister’s office. In contrast, the US Environmental Protection Agency has convened a similar expert group — except that their process is transparent and the public is invited to attend the meetings.21 Small wonder that the chair of the Health Canada committee has since written to the government, lamenting that “Canada has a pretty bleak reputation in most of the health science world.”22

Sadly, the criticism is deserved. For Canada to export asbestos to poor countries that lack the capacity to use it safely is inexplicable. But to descend several steps further to suppress the results of an expert committee, pour millions of dollars into an institute that shills for the industry and oppose even the Rotterdam Convention’s simple rule of politeness is inexcusable. Canada’s government seems to have calculated that it is better for the country’s asbestos industry to do business under the radar like arms traders, regardless of the deadly consequences. What clearer indication could there be that the government knows what it is doing is shameful and wrong?

Canada’s government must put an end to this death-dealing charade. Canada must immediately drop its opposition to placing chrysotile under the Rotterdam Convention’s notification and consent processes and stop funding the Chrysotile Institute. More importantly, Canada should do its part in alleviating the global epidemic of asbestos-related disease by ending the mining and export of chrysotile, as the WHO recommends.

Footnotes

With the Editorial-Writing Team (Paul C. Hébert MD MHSc, Rajendra Kale MD, Barbara Sibbald BJ, Ken Flegel MDCM MSc and Noni MacDonald MD MSc)

Competing interests: None declared for David Boyd. See http://www.cmaj.ca/misc/edboard.shtml for the Editorial-Writing Team’s statements.

REFERENCES

1. Castleman BI, Joshi TK. The global asbestos struggle today. Eur J Oncol 2007;12:149-54.
2. Brophy JT, Keith MM, Schieman J. Canada’s asbestos legacy at home and abroad. Int J Occup Environ Health 2007;13:235-42.
3. Ladou J. The asbestos cancer epidemic. Environ Health Perspect 2004;112:285-90.[Medline]
4. Rotterdam Convention on the prior informed consent procedure for certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides in international trade. Norwich (UK): The Stationary Office; 2004. Available: http://www.pic.int/en/ConventionText/ONU-GB.pdf (accessed 2008 Sept 17).
5. Office of the Auditor General of Canada. Canada’s policies on chrysotile asbestos exports [response by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to Environment Petition no. 179]. Ottawa (ON): The Office; 2006. Available: http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/pet_179_e_28915.html (accessed 2008 Sept 22).
6. Secretariat for the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. Annex V: draft decision guidance document: chrysotile asbestos. Annex to document no: UNEP/FAO/RC/COP.3/11. Available: http://www.pic.int/home.php?type=b&id=70 (accessed 2008 Sept 22).
7. World Health Organization. Elimination of asbestos-related disease. Geneva: The Organization; 2006. Available: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2006/WHO_SDE_OEH_06.03_eng.pdf (accessed 2008 Sept 17).
8. International Agency for Research on Cancer. Asbestos. IARC Monogr Eval Carcinog Risks Hum 1987;(Suppl 7):106-16.
9. International Labour Organization. 2006. Resolution concerning asbestos: adopted by the 95th session of the International Labour Conference, June 2006. (UNEP/FAO/RC/COP.3/INF/17). Available: http://www.pic.int/home.php?type=b&id=70 (accessed 2008 Sept 22).
10. Tossavainen A, Kotilainen M, Takahashi K, et al. Amphibole fibres in Chinese chrysotile asbestos. Ann Occup Hyg 2001;45:145-52.[Abstract/Free Full Text]
11. Pearce N. Corporate influences on epidemiology. Int J Epidemiol 2008;37:46-53.[Abstract/Free Full Text]
12. Yano E, Wang ZM, Wang XR, et al. Cancer mortality among workers exposed to amphibole-free chrysotile asbestos. Am J Epidemiol 2001;154:538-43.[Abstract/Free Full Text]
13. Mirabelli D, Calisti R, Barone AF, et al. Excess of mesotheliomas after exposure to chrysotile in Balangero, Italy. Occup Environ Med 2008; Jun 4. Epub ahead of print.
14. Hein MJ, Stayner LT, Lehman E, et al. Follow-up study of chrysotile textile workers: cohort mortality and exposure-response. Occup Environ Med 2007;64: 616-25.[Abstract/Free Full Text]
15. Li L, Sun TD, Zhang X, et al. Cohort studies on cancer mortality among workers exposed only to chrysotile asbestos: a meta-analysis. Biomed Environ Sci 2004;17:459-68.[Medline]
16. Berman DW, Crump KS. A. Meta-analysis of asbestos-related cancer risk that addresses fiber size and mineral type. Crit Rev Toxicol 2008;38:49-73.[Medline]
17. Berman DW, Crump KS. Update of potency factors for asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma. Crit Rev Toxicol 2008;38:1-47.[Medline]
18. Canada Minerals Yearbook 2006. Chrysotile. Ottawa (ON): Natural Resources Canada. Minerals and Metals Sector; 2007. Available: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/mms/cmy/content/2006/20.pdf (accessed 2008 Sept 17).
19. Virta RL. Asbestos substitutes. In: Kogel JE, Nikhil C, Trivedi JM, et al., editors. Industrial minerals and rocks: commodities, markets and uses. 7th ed. Littleton (CO): Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration; 2006.
20. Tri DD, Toan NN, Cong NT. Possibility of using substitute materials for asbestos and non-asbestos fibro cement roofing tiles to reduce environmental pollution and increase workers’ health protection in Vietnam. Proceedings [CD-ROM] of the Global Asbestos Conference; 2004 Nov 19–21; Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo, Japan: World Asbestos Congress; 2004. Available: http://worldasbestosreport.org/gac2004/pl_7_04_e.pdf (accessed 2008 Aug 22)
21. Federal Register/ Vol 73, No 108/ Wednesday, June 4, 2008/Notices. US Environmental Protection Agency. Science advisory board staff office: notification of an upcoming meeting of the science advisory board asbestos committee. Washington: The Register; 2008. Available: http://www.epa.gov/fedrgstr/EPA-MEETINGS/2008/June/Day-04/m12503.pdf (accessed 2008 Sept 22).
22. Daubs K. Asbestos report ‘misused:’ scientists. Ottawa Citizen 2008 May 28. Available: http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/story.html?id=4c342ebe-2633-4ea4-bc06-34797b8ed932 (accessed 2008 Sept 17).

Don’t Get Fooled Again, a public forum with with Richard Wilson and Paul Kingsnorth, at the 12th Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair 2008

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Saturday 1 November 2008 at 2.00pm
Venue:
Out of the Blue Drill Hall
30-38 Dalmeny Street
Edinburgh
EH6 8RG
Scotland
UK

Admission Free! Donations welcome!

All Welcome!

Cafe and Bar Open!

Why is it that intelligent and educated people are, time and again, fooled by ideas that turn out to be nonsense? From different perspectives Richard Wilson and Paul Kingsnorth discuss the impact of deception and delusion on our daily lives.

Richard Wilson is the author of Don’t Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic’s Guide to Life .

‘…provides the reader with the analytical tools to avoid being taken for a ride, as well as being entertaining and informative.’ Patrick Neale, The Bookseller

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of One No, Many Yeses. His Latest book is Real England: The Battle Against the Bland .

‘An understated but still very effective polemic about the damage done to our real quality of life over the last few decades, and our collective failure to do very much about it.’ Jonathon Porritt , Chairman, Sustainable Development Commission

Written by Richard Wilson

October 23, 2008 at 2:00 am

“Professor” John Bridle’s links to the asbestos industry

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When the Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker first introduced his readers to John Bridle, he described him as “UK scientific spokesman for the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association”, but since then he has been rather more coy about Bridle’s industry links.

As long ago as 2002, the British Asbestos Newsletter produced an article highlighting John Bridle’s track record. The BAN quotes an article written by Bridle himself (the original source is available on subscription here), which states that he: “retired from the asbestos cement industry in 1999 after 38 years working at all levels of the industry”.

According to the BAN:

Records at Companies House confirm that Bridle held several directorships in the late 1980s…

Mr. Bridle told Roofing Magazine: “The industry has given me an extremely interesting life… I have seen the world. I have met a lot of interesting people and I have an enormous fondness for an industry which I think the so called experts are going to destroy if they’re not careful.”

BAN also reports on Bridle’s association with the “Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association” – the industry body mentioned by Booker in his first article on John Bridle:

Bridle has been acting as the UK technical consultant to the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association (ACPPA)… The purpose of the group is spelled out by Bridle: “the ACPPA is a world wide association dedicated to supplying scientific information for the safe handling of Chrysotile.”

The following details about the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association (ACPPA) were found in the 38th edition (published 2002) of the Encyclopaedia of Associations:

“Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association
PMB 114
1235 Jefferson Davis Hwy.
Arlington, VA 22202
Denis Hamel, Dir.
PH: (514) 861 1153
FX: (514) 861 1152
Founded: 1972 Members: 20. Staff: 2. Budget: $39,500.
Description: Promotes and defends the use of asbestos cement building materials. Libraries: Type: reference; open to the public. Holdings: books, periodicals, monographs, Subject: a/c pipes and sheets.”

…the office of the ACPPA is at the same address as the Asbestos Information Association/North America and the Association of Asbestos Cement Product Producers (AACPP)…The Director of the ACPPA is Denis Hamel. Hamel is also a director of the Montreal-based Asbestos Institute (AI), “a private organization established in 1984 by the companies producing asbestos, unions and the Canadian and Quebec governments” to “promote the safe use of asbestos in Canada and throughout the world.”

In 1983, the year before the Asbestos Institute was created, the building materials supplier US Gypsum had, according to Corporate Watch, become embroiled in a major public controversy over the use of asbestos in its products, and hired the PR firm Hill and Knowlton to help limit the damage:

Documents released as part of a court case brought by the State of Baltimore against US Gypsum showed how the issue was handled.

H&K advised Gypsum that the “the spread of media coverage must be stopped at the local level and as soon as possible” and that Gypsum should create an industry group to “take the heat from the press and industry critics.” H&K also suggested that Gypsum enlist scientists and doctors as “independent experts” to downplay issues about the health risks associated with asbestos. “The media and other audiences important to U.S. Gypsum should ideally say, ‘Why is all this furore being raised about this product?’ We have a non-story here,” concluded H&K’s advice.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review:

One focus of this strategy was to plant stories on op-ed pages “by experts sympathetic to the company’s point of view.” The plan included placing articles attesting to the safety of asbestos.

Although a Gypsum spokesman told The Daily Record that the company did not implement the advice, court papers show that Gypsum planted op-ed pieces in papers in Baltimore and Detroit. An interoffice Gypsum memo reads: “Attached is an excellent series run over four days, beginning March 3 [1985] in the Detroit News. Our consultant, Jack Kinney, very actively fed much of this information to the special writer, Michael Bennett. SBA is exploring ways of more widely circulating these articles.” (As recently as June 30, 1991, the Baltimore Sun published an article by Bennett which claimed that the risk of asbestos exposure was comparable to “smoking one half a cigarette in a lifetime.”)

This example in particular seems to have striking parallels with the Booker and Bridle case. According to the asbestos campaigner Jason Addy, an email obtained under Canadian freedom of information laws shows that John Bridle was in direct contact with the Asbestos Institute in February 2002, and specifically discussed the article by Christopher Booker that was due to run that Sunday.

According to Addy (click here for the HTML version), Bridle told the Asbestos Institute that: “The Sunday Telegraph are supporting these moves”, and that “Sunday we have Booker article {I will mail this to. you this afternoon} {1 million readers}… This should give us all a good weekend”.

In 2003, the Asbestos Institute was relaunched as the “Chrysotile Institute”, but John Bridle’s association continued. A 2006 Chrysotile Institute press release trailed a presentation in Bangkok in which:

Professor John Bridle, Chief inspector of the UK Asbestos Watchdog, will highlight cases in the United Kingdom where a combination of “bad science, bad regulation and a campaign of demonisation” has resulted in bankruptcies and a climate of fear about products and materials that present “no measurable risk to health”.

Professor Bridle will detail his work with the UK Government to try and help British businesses and homeowners who are suffering from over-zealous implementation of bad regulations, based on outdated science.

The same statement claimed that Bridle: “has recently been awarded a prestigious honorary degree in ‘Asbestos Sciences’ by the Russian Institute of Occupational Health. His new professorship makes him the foremost authority on asbestos science in the world.”

Writing in his 2007 book “Scared to Death”, Christopher Booker hails Bridle’s visit to Thailand as a “victory”. The Thai health minister, after meeting with Bridle and another industry consultant, was “sufficiently impressed by their evidence to announce that his country would now be reconsidering its decision to ban white asbestos”.

According to John Bridle, the Chrysotile Institute was so pleased with Christopher Booker’s chapter on asbestos in “Scared to Death” that it had “arranged with the book’s publishers for the right to reprint the section of the book covering the asbestos story”.

Bridle’s own company, Asbestos Watchdog, was also reportedly distributing copies “FREE for a limited time only”, subject to £3.65 postage and packing…

Earlier this month, the Canadian Medical Association Journal condemned the Canadian government, which has funded the Chrysotile Institute to the tune of $19 million, for its “shameful political manipulation of science” around asbestos. According to the Journal:

“Most developed countries, including Canada, have concluded that their occupational health and safety systems were no match for handling asbestos safely, and so they transitioned to using effective and affordable alternatives. For Canada to pretend that India, Thailand and Indonesia can succeed in managing asbestos safely, when developed countries have failed, is fanciful.”

Although Booker has now endorsed John Bridle’s expertise on at least 13 separate occasions, I could only find one further reference to his industry links, and it was an oblique one.

In 2006 Booker reported that “One leading asbestos company was so alarmed by the practices rife in the industry that it even gave Asbestos Watchdog [Bridle's company] significant financial backing.”