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Asbestos saga proves our feeble press watchdog has no bark and no bite

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“Getting a PCC isn’t great but all it is, is just a little apology… you get a slap on the wrist… and the PCC is run by the newspaper editors” (5m 09s) – News of the World journalist secretly filmed by ‘Starsuckers’

From Guest post at The Lay Scientist, Guardian blogs

Back in February, the Daily Mail published an article denouncing “The Great Asbestos Hysteria”, and claiming that the health risks had been grossly exaggerated by “the BBC, profiteering lawyers, and gullible politicians”.

The article was a response to a study raising concerns about the ongoing dangers of asbestos in UK schools. Those dangers were, the Daily Mail assured us, “all but non-existent”. While many older school buildings still contained asbestos, almost all of it was “relatively harmless white asbestos, encapsulated in cement or other materials, from which it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre”. The threat from such products was so “vanishingly small” that a study by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had concluded that the danger was “insignificant”, with “arguably zero” risk of lung cancer.

Good news all round, then. No need for schools to worry about that crumbling asbestos roof. No need, we might think, for maintenance workers to wear protective clothing when renovating old school buildings. No need, it would seem, to employ specialist contractors to assess whether to leave asbestos undisturbed or get it removed. Those guys are, in any case, according to the Mail, a “commercial racket” with a “vested interest in exaggerating the dangers of products which are, in effect, harmless”.

Last week, seven months after the article was published, the Daily Mail issued a carefully worded correction:

“…The HSE assessments related to specific levels of exposure to white asbestos fibres, not white asbestos products, and found a risk from higher levels. The article said that asbestos in UK schools is almost all white. According to the HSE the more harmful brown asbestos was also frequently used in schools…”

Not such good news. What many reading the Daily Mail article won’t have known is that the author, Christopher Booker, has a long track record of downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. Though not a scientist himself, Booker has written at least 42 newspaper articles on this subject since 2002, making claims that run counter to the views of most experts, but are remarkably similar to those of the asbestos industry.

Several of the claims in the Daily Mail article – including that an HSE study once concluded the health risks of white asbestos cement were “insignificant” – have previously appeared in Booker’s Sunday Telegraph column, prompting a series of direct rebuttals from the HSE. The available evidence, as assessed by – among others – the World Health Organisation, the UK and US governments, and the European Union, is that white asbestos poses a serious risk to human health that needs to be carefully managed.

If the experts are right about asbestos and Booker is wrong, then this matters for at least two reasons. Firstly, there’s a danger that people may take unnecessary risks when handling the stuff, with potentially deadly consequences a couple of decades down the line. In 2008, a survey by the British Lung Foundation found widespread ignorance about the health risks, with under a third of tradespeople – the group most at risk of exposure – aware that it could cause cancer, and 28% “mistakenly assuming that some levels of asbestos are safe”. Further misinformation surely won’t help.

Secondly, for those affected by asbestos-related disease, ill-informed media reports belittling the health risks can be offensive and upsetting. I got the smallest glimpse of what that must be like when I saw that my blog had been linked to from a Facebook group set up by mesothelioma sufferers in response to Booker’s Daily Mail article.

Several members of the group had decided to report the Mail to the Press Complaints Commission, for breaching section 1 of the PCC’s ethical code: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”. I’ve been following Booker’s antics for a while – I researched his work in detail for my book Don’t Get Fooled Again, and still write about him from time to time on my blog. So I decided to support the Facebook campaigners – and test out the PCC’s claim to be “fast, free and fair” – by putting in a complaint of my own.

It wasn’t difficult to produce evidence debunking the Mail’s assertion that white asbestos was “relatively harmless”. Back in 2002, the HSE had published a summary, with references, of the peer-reviewed research linking the material to mesothelioma and lung cancer. The newspaper’s claim that an HSE study had found the dangers of white asbestos cement to be “insignificant” was also easy to disprove: Booker had made the self-same claim in the Sunday Telegraph back in 2008, and been rebutted in detail by the HSE.

Neither was it hard to show that the Mail had got it wrong in claiming that “it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre” from white asbestos cement. An HSE lab report from 2007 notes that “the claim that respirable airborne chrysotile fibres are not able to be released from asbestos cement products was refuted by the individual airborne fibres sampled during the breaking of the test sample with a hammer”.

In theory, this should have been the end of the matter. According to the PCC’s code, “a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence”. What happened instead, in my view, speaks volumes both about the character of the Daily Mail, and the credibility of the newspaper industry’s self-regulatory body.

After a delay of several weeks, the PCC forwarded me a dismissive response from the Daily Mail’s executive managing editor, Robin Esser. While acknowledging some minor errors, Esser insisted that the disputed HSE study did indeed back up Booker’s views on asbestos. The fact that the HSE had put out a statement explicitly rebutting this merely proved that “those responsible for HSE press releases are similarly unable to grasp the significance of findings published by their own statisticians”. For good measure, Esser accused me (falsely, just in case you’re wondering) of being “allied to a well-organised and well-funded commercial lobby”, who “stand to benefit financially” from the “anti-asbestos campaign”.

Rather than take ownership of the process, assess the various bits of evidence and come to a judgement, the PCC instead asked me to go through this new set of claims and produce a further response. Here I began to see why so many people have given up on the PCC. If a newspaper digs in its heels and simply denies all the evidence that’s been presented, there doesn’t seem to be much that the PCC can do except bat the issue back to the complainant.

It was at this stage that I learned that the asbestos campaigner Michael Lees had also submitted a detailed complaint. Michael, who has been working to highlight the dangers of asbestos in schools since losing his wife Gina, a teacher, to mesothelioma, had been singled out by name – the third time that Booker had done this. Michael took particular exception to the dismissive terms in which the article had referred to his wife’s death, adding to the offence of a previous piece in which Booker had dubbed the case “bizarre”. He was also concerned that – aside from Booker’s views on white asbestos – the article sidestepped the fact that many schools still contain large amounts of brown asbestos, whose dangers are beyond dispute.

More time-consuming exchanges followed, with long gaps in between, while we awaited a response from the Daily Mail. In the end we won, sort of. The newspaper agreed to make some amendments to the text of the article, publish a short correction, and write a private apology to Michael Lees over Booker’s comments about his wife. But to get even this far has taken seven months, and a substantial time investment, while the Daily Mail seems to have been able to drag the process out with impunity. “Free”, perhaps – but hardly “fast”, or “fair”.

Richard Wilson is the author of Don’t Get Fooled Again – The Skeptic’s Guide to Life. www.twitter.com/dontgetfooled

Written by Richard Wilson

September 30, 2010 at 6:42 am

Another surrealist masterpiece from Christopher Booker

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Update – False and misleading claims about asbestos are especially galling for those actually living with mesothelioma, a cancer whose only known cause is asbestos exposure. A Mesothelioma action group have now set up a Facebook campaign criticising the Daily Mail over its misleading coverage on this issue.

Compare and contrast…

1. From Christopher Booker in today’s Daily Mail:

Yesterday saw the launch of yet another scare campaign.

As so often before championed by the BBC, it warned us again of the deadly dangers posed by asbestos – this time in Britain’s schools.

It is true that most older school buildings contain asbestos products of one kind or another, such as asbestos cement roof slates or ceiling tiles.

But almost all of these products contain relatively harmless white asbestos, encapsulated in cement or other materials, from which it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre…

…when it is encapsulated in cement, as it most often is, it is virtually impossible for those fibres to escape and be breathed into the lungs at all..

==> From the UK government’s Health and Safety Laboratory, 2007

Epidemiology has shown that chrysotile is a human carcinogen…

The claim that respirable airborne chrysotile fibres are not able to be released from asbestos cement products was refuted by the individual airborne fibres sampled during the breaking of the test sample with a hammer.

2. From Christopher Booker in today’s Daily Mail:

The dangers from such products are so vanishingly small – as many scientific studies have shown – that, in the cautious words of a report by the HSE itself, they are ‘insignificant’. The risks of their causing lung cancer are ‘arguably zero’.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 23, 2010 at 10:45 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Richard North caught white-washing Booker’s Wikipedia entry

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whitepaint

Wikipedia’s article on Christopher Booker is currently the top search result when you type type his name into Google. Alongside a rather impressive biography, the article references “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, and includes a list of Booker’s false statements on global warming and asbestos (including the notorious claim that white asbestos is “chemically identical to talcum powder“), with links to the various corrections issued over the years by the Health and Safety Executive.

Enter Richard North, Booker’s co-author for the surrealist masterpiece “Scared to Death” (which debunks the dangers of passive smoking, white asbestos, eating BSE-infected beef, CO2 emissions, leaded petrol, dioxins, and high-speed car driving), and erstwhile “chief researcher” of the UK Independence Party.

When The Guardian’s George Monbiot took issue with Booker over his pseudo-scientific claims, North mounted a spirited defence – albeit one that relied on further false claims about asbestos science. But it appears that he also went further. Last month, someone calling themselves “Defence of the realm” cut all critical references from Booker’s Wikipedia entry. The change was quickly reverted, so they did it again the next day, claiming that the criticisms were “libellous”. The edit was again reverted, only for “Defence of the realm” to try it one more time a few days later.

The identity of Booker’s pseudonymous champion would have remained a mystery but for the fact that Wikipedia allows us to browse through a user’s previous contributions to the website. These include an online discussion from November in which an anonymous user first identifies himself as Richard North, gives his email address as RAENORTH at aol.com, and then signs in as “Defence of the Realm”.

It might at least be plausible that an entirely different Richard North had chosen to spring to Booker’s defence, were it not for the fact that Booker himself gives the same email address for “my friend Richard North” in several of his Sunday Telegraph articles. Barring an improbably elaborate conspiracy to frame North as a serial wiki-whitewasher, it would appear that, for all his democratic rhetoric and iconoclastic posturing, Richard North is less than keen on the public knowing the full facts about his co-author’s track record…

Liberal Conspiracy on Christopher Booker’s scientific credentials

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From Liberal Conspiracy

Rejoice, people! Whatever you may’ve read, however many chilling predictions you may have heard, however frequently Al Gore might haunt your dreams, telling you that the world will end in a torrent of fire because YOU don’t use energy-saving lightbulbs, I can promise that all those fears are unfounded. For as people across the world glance at 2009 with such foreboding and dread, Christopher Booker has made the jolly discovery that instead of getting much, much worse, climate change doesn’t actually exist all!

Now, I understand that there’s a great deal of misinformation out there in BlogLand, and since I’m not a scientist (well, neither is he, but he sure seems to know a lot more than ‘real scientists’), I have to make sure that all my sources are of the highest calibre. So I did whatever any forensic time-deprived blogger would do, and checked him out on Wikipedia. Without further ado, and just to show how seriously you should take his scientific acumen, here are some of Booker’s greatest hits…

“Misinformed”, “substantially misleading” and “absurd” – the UK government’s verdict on Christopher Booker’s claims

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The Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has been taking some flack this week over his latest bogus claims on global warming. This in turn has triggered renewed scrutiny of Booker’s denialism on other issues – particularly his assertions about white asbestos, which I examine in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.

I thought it might be useful to collate some of the responses to Booker’s articles over the years from the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive. Most are letters to the editor, correcting false statements that Booker has made about the HSE and its work. Only the first appears to have been accepted by the Sunday Telegraph for publication – the newspaper usually refuses to print letters which contradict Booker’s bogus claims.

Christopher Booker’s articles on the dangers of white asbestos (Notebook, Jan 13, 27, Feb 10) are misinformed and do little to increase public understanding of a very important occupational health issue.

-Timothy Walker, Director General, Health & Safety Executive, February 2002

The articles in the Sunday Telegraph by Christopher Booker entitled “Fatal cracks appear in asbestos scam as HSE shifts its ground” and “Booker wins asbestos battle” (11 December) highlighted aspects of the current Health and Safety Commission consultation on changes to the asbestos regulations.

While we welcome the emphasis in the articles on evidence-based policy making, I need to correct a comment about our views. While risks from white asbestos may be significantly lower than the risks from blue or brown, HSE does not agree that white asbestos poses no medical risk.

-Jonathan Rees, Deputy Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, December 2005

The Health and Safety Laboratory’s research does not confirm that white asbestos in textured coatings poses “no health risk” (Christopher Booker, 6 August). In its report for the Health and Safety Executive, the Laboratory found rather that the level of asbestos fibres in the air from work with textured coatings will not exceed the proposed new lower control limit when carried out using good practice.

Chrysotile asbestos, as found in many textured coatings, is classified as a category 1 carcinogen hazardous by inhalation by both the World Health Organisation and the EU.

-Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, August 2006

HSE does not exaggerate the risks of white asbestos cement fibres as claimed by Christopher Booker (Farmers face £6 bn bill for asbestos clean up’ 25 May). The article was substantially misleading…

The HSE paper quoted in the article in fact makes no specific statement about the risks of asbestos cement. It provides a summary of risk estimates for mesothelioma and lung cancer in relation to blue, brown and white asbestos across a range of exposures. Blue and brown asbestos are substantially more hazardous than white, but all three types can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Finally, HSE in no way promotes the interests of the asbestos removal industry and it is absurd to suggest otherwise.

-Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, May 2008

Veteran Liberal MP’s asbestos industry links exposed

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The Daily Mirror has picked up on a story that’s been doing the rounds in Rochdale for a while – the revelations about dubious links between the veteran Liberal MP (now retired) Cyril Smith and the asbestos manufacturer, Turner and Newall. Documents recently obtained by local campaigners show that during the early 1980s, as public health concerns over asbestos grew, Smith wrote to the company – whose factory was based in his constituency – asking them to write him a speech which he would then read out in Parliament, passing it off as his own independent view. In the speech, Smith claimed that “the public at large is not at risk”, but failed to reveal that he was simply parroting the industry’s line. The following year it was disclosed that Smith owned 1,300 shares in Turner and Newall. Smith was unrepentant when questioned recently about the case by the Mirror: “Of course the speech was extremely useful to me because it made it sound as if I could speak intelligently on a subject I knew little about”.

Michael Lees slaps down the Sunday Telegraph over its latest claims on asbestos

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For the past six years, the Sunday Telegraph’s Christopher Booker has been trying to convince the world that white asbestos is harmless, regularly parroting the industry’s mantra that the material poses ‘no measurable risk to health’.

In his latest article – his 41st on the subject by my count – Booker repeats a number of the false claims he has made in previous pieces, and accuses the BBC of “moral corruption” for giving coverage to the Health and Safety Executive’s latest campaign to raise awareness of asbestos hazards among those most at risk. According to Booker:

It was telling that when Radio 4′s Today was promoting the HSE’s latest fad last week, it should have used Michael Lees, a veteran anti-asbestos campaigner, whose teacher wife died of mesothelioma, to support the claim that ever more teachers are dying from exposure to asbestos in schools.

Yet when the HSE had earlier investigated Mr Lees’s claims it found that they were “not borne out by the facts”. The mortality rate for female teachers was “in line with the average for the whole of the female population”.

Booker had previously described Mr Lees’ effort to raise awareness of the risk to teachers from asbestos in schools as “The bizarre death-by-drawing-pin scare”.

The Sunday Telegraph usually refuses to publish letters to the editor criticising Booker’s bogus claims, but it has recently begun allowing readers to comment on the online versions of his articles. His latest attack has now drawn this response from Michael Lees himself:

Christopher Booker has made statements about asbestos that are either incorrect or misleading as he has failed to understand, or has chosen to put to one side, the science, statistics and facts. What is of concern is that his statements undermine the good work that is being done by those he criticises.

The deaths from mesothelioma are not as he states calculated on “a complex formula based on no fewer than three arbitrary assumptions,” for they are based on a simple body count. That count shows that the HSE campaign targeted at the building maintenance trades is totally justified. For more than twenty carpenters, electricians and plumbers dying a week from asbestos exposure cannot be described as “the latest scare,” although that is precisely what Mr Booker does. He also equates the BBC report on asbestos in public buildings as being another example of the “moral corruption of the BBC.” He should not judge others by his own standards, for the BBC report was well researched and gave a measured, balanced view of the topic while highlighting the very real dangers from deteriorating and damaged asbestos in buildings. His views about chrysotile are not only incorrect but are contrary to all informed opinion, it also appears that he is unaware that crocidolite has been used, and amosite has been extensively used in the internal structure of schools and hospitals, and therefore as the materials have deteriorated over time they represent a very real and increasing risk to the occupants.

He is as wrong now as he was in his column in April 2006 in which he described my wife’s death as “bizarre.” Not only were his comments distasteful, they were also flawed through lack of the most rudimentary research which in his own words had “taken only seconds to find on the internet.” First he raised the matter of the number of asbestos fibres released from displaying the children’s work by inserting drawing pins in asbestos insulating board. He quoted then, as he has now from a letter sent to me by the HSE Head of Asbestos Policy. If Mr Booker had cared to spend a few seconds longer in his research, he would have discovered that the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee, WATCH, had dismissed the figures quoted by Mr Booker, for WATCH concluded that the realistic worst case exposure of the teacher would be some 16,000 times greater. I wrote to the editor of the Sunday Telegraph giving the reasons why Mr Booker’s statements were incorrect, however my letter was not published.

The second issue raised in 2006 and repeated in Booker’s latest column concerns the number of teachers dying from mesothelioma. He has again failed to carry out more than the most superficial research. I would have hoped that, as he makes very public statements based on statistics, he understands Proportional Mortality Ratios (PMR), and that for the period between 1980 and 2000 the PMR of 100 amongst female school teachers shows that their deaths from mesothelioma are three times higher than one would expect in a profession where there should be little or no asbestos exposure. As the HSE Statistics Branch stated in connection with school teachers’ deaths “Even if the proportion of mesothelioma deaths amongst teachers was in line with the proportion of females that are teachers one could still draw the conclusion that there are too many deaths among a group which are supposed to have had very little asbestos exposure.” Over the years the numbers of school teachers dying from mesothelioma has been steadily increasing with 15 dying in the period 1980 to 1985 with the latest statistics showing that 64 died in the period 2001 to 2005. In my terms that supports the BBC’s supposition that even more teachers are dying from mesothelioma.

I would therefore suggest that before Mr Booker passes comment in his column, he considers both the facts and the potential damage that his misleading and incorrect statements will cause.

In his 41st article on the subject, Booker accuses the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos

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Earlier this week the BBC’s Today Programme reported a rise in the number of teachers, doctors and nurses dying from the incurable cancer mesothelioma, having been exposed to asbestos in schools and hospitals. The programme highlighted the case of Mary Artherton, a former nurse who had been diagnosed with the disease after working in three hospitals where asbestos was present.

“I was absolutely horrified when I heard the news”, she told the BBC. “I’d nursed people with mesothelioma in the past. I know the prognosis was very poor and it just frightened me, completely.”

The BBC had previously highlighted a new campaign by the Health and Safety Executive to raise awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure among plumbers, electricians and other tradespeople:

The HSE says research suggests exposure kills on average six electricians, three plumbers and six joiners every week and it fears those numbers could grow in the future because of complacency.

It believes only one in 10 current tradesmen recognises the danger and is launching a campaign to raise awareness.

The HSE’s new campaign was also publicised by the UK’s largest cancer charity, Cancer Research UK:

When a person comes into contact with asbestos, they breathe in tiny fibres of the substance and these can irritate and damage the cells lining the lung. Up to 80 per cent of people diagnosed with mesothelioma have been in contact with asbestos, and the risk is greatest among tradesmen who can be exposed to the substance at work. According to the HSE, at least 4,000 people die as a result of asbestos every year. But scientists believe this rate could rise, since people who have been exposed usually do not develop mesothelioma for between 15 and 40 years. The organisation’s new campaign, ‘Asbestos: The hidden killer’, is designed to improve awareness among tradesmen, many of whom underestimate the risk that asbestos still poses despite the ban.

In response to the BBC’s coverage, the Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has written his 41st article misrepresenting the science around asbestos, and accusing the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos exposure:

Last week, the BBC was again publicising the latest scare over asbestos, launched by the Health and Safety Executive and supported by all those who stand to benefit by it, from asbestos removal contractors to ambulance-chasing lawyers (and the trade unions which get £250 for every referral to solicitors specialising in compensation claims).

In the article, Booker also repeats his false claim that the HSE had previously described the risks of white asbestos cement as “insignificant or zero”.

In previous articles he has repeatedly misrepresented one paper by two HSE statisticians, Hodgson and Darnton, which he says drew such a conclusion. The editor of the journal which published that study recently commented here that:

“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..

The 500 times difference… may apply to the relative risk of mesothelioma, a much less important disease than lung cancer in chrysotile exposure…”

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).

Booker’s praise for the asbestos industry’s answer to “Doctor” Gillian McKeith

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In his many Sunday Telegraph articles downplaying or denying the health risks of white asbestos (this latest gem now brings the total to at least 40), Christopher Booker has endorsed the bogus expert John Bridle on at least 13 separate occasions, describing him variously as “UK scientific spokesman for the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association”, “an experienced South Wales surveyor and qualified chemist”, “a scientifically trained surveyor”, “a fully-qualified expert”, “our expert John Bridle”, “the asbestos expert John Bridle”, “one of the country’s leading asbestos experts”, “a genuine asbestos expert”

…an “honorary professor” of the “Russian Occupational Health Institute, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences”, “John Bridle of Asbestos Watchdog, the firm launched through this column to fight the nationwide racket”, “Professor John Bridle of Asbestos Watchdog, the firm set up with the aid of this column to puncture the bubble of hysteria surrounding asbestos”, and “Professor John Bridle, Britain’s leading practical asbestos expert”, (see also here and here for more references).

Click here for more background on “Professor” John Bridle’s links to the asbestos industry.

Booker has also stated, falsely, that the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive “fully supports what Asbestos Watchdog is doing”, that the HSE is “closely collaborating” with John Bridle, and that the agency has given Bridle its “official support”.

When, in 2006, the BBC’s You and Yours programme ran an investigation exposing John Bridle’s bogus claims, highlighting his 2005 trades descriptions conviction for making false assertions about his qualifications, and accusing him of “lies”,”self-aggrandizement” and running “unaccredited tests”, Christopher Booker was outraged – and perhaps also a little embarrassed.

Before the programme had even been broadcast, Booker was denouncing the BBC through his Sunday Telegraph column, accusing them of falling for “distortions and untruths”, and being part of a “concerted move by the powerful ‘anti-asbestos lobby’ to silence Bridle”.

According to Booker:

Some charges are laughable, such as that Bridle falsely claims to have been made in 2005 an honorary professor of the prestigious Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. Confirmed by the academy’s official certificate, this was widely reported in Russia at the time as the first occasion on which anyone had been so honoured.

In reality, the BBC made no such allegation. The programme-makers in fact noted that Bridle had produced a certificate from an institution calling itself the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences which named him an “honorary professor”. What they took issue with was Bridle’s claim that this little-known organisation was in any way connected to the internationally-renowned Russian Academy of Sciences – and with Bridle’s repeated assertions that his honorary professorship was from this similarly-named yet wholly separate body.

Booker also claimed that:

The BBC charges [Bridle] with falsely claiming to have advised the Conservative Party leadership.

Yet in 2002 when, after a briefing from Bridle, Iain Duncan Smith, then the party’s leader, wrote to the Government asking for the regulations to be delayed until they could be debated by Parliament, Bridle (and I) gave extensive written and verbal briefings to John Bercow, the front-bench Tory spokesman who led the debate, as You and Yours could have confirmed by consulting Hansard.

In reality, again, the BBC did not actually say this. The programme-makers not only made it clear that Bridle had briefed John Bercow – they carried an interview with Bercow in which he made it clear that he now believed that Bridle had seriously misled him. What Bercow himself took issue with in the programme was the claim that the Conservative front bench was, or had ever been, a “client” of John Bridle. Bercow described this claim as “wrong, far-fetched and misleading”.

The following week, Booker wrote that:

As a vicious hatchet job, the BBC did everything that the “anti-asbestos lobby” could have wanted. With a fine array of selective evidence, distortion and misquotation, it chose all the right interviewees to blacken Bridle’s character unmercifully.

In his 2007 book “Scared to Death” (co-authored with Richard North), Booker devotes a whole chapter to asbestos, and continues his attack on the BBC over its exposé of John Bridle, describing the programme as a “farrago of make believe”, and a “carefully-planned operation to discredit him” based on “hearsay evidence given by Bridle’s enemies”.

While Booker makes the most of John Bercow’s “trenchant speech” in Parliament in 2002 (following a briefing from John Bridle), he chooses not to tell his readers that, by 2006, Bercow had come to a very different view, and had actually been one of the BBC’s key sources in its exposé of Bridle’s bogus claims.

According to Booker:

Bridle was legally advised that, although the programme was blatantly defamatory, to sue the BBC for libel would be a gamble. With a bottomless purse of licence-payers’ money, its lawyers could afford to run up the costs to such an astronomic level that, on a limited budget, he would find it hard to stay in the game. More effective, he was advised, would be first to mount a complaint to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom, on the grounds that the BBC had broken pretty well every professional rule in the book…

A formal complaint was duly lodged. For months, the BBC continued to spin out the resulting exchanges. By the time this book went to press, Ofcom had not yet given its verdict.

According to John Bridle, the Chrysotile Institute, an asbestos industry funded lobby group, was so pleased with this particular chapter of “Scared to Death” that it “arranged with the book’s publishers for the right to reprint the section of the book covering the asbestos story”.

Earlier this year, Ofcom gave its verdict on the BBC’s investigation:

This edition of “You and Yours” included a report on Professor John Bridle, who it introduced with the words: “the man behind Asbestos Watchdog who claims to have saved people millions of pounds, but the claims about himself are littered with lies”. The programme stated that Professor Bridle, an asbestos surveyor, portrayed himself as “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”. The programme claimed that Professor Bridle’s views on the safety of one type of asbestos were contrary to those held by the British Government, the Health and Safety Executive and the World Health Organisation, among others. The programme also questioned Professor Bridle’s credentials and expertise in testing for the presence of asbestos.

Professor Bridle complained to Ofcom that he was treated unfairly in the programme as broadcast in that he was unfairly portrayed as a liar and charlatan; his expertise and qualifications were questioned along with his business credentials; it alleged, wrongly, that he carried out unauthorised white asbestos “testing” and that he had claimed that asbestos posed no measurable risk to health; and, it failed to include “evidence” provided by him that offset the criticisms made in the programme.

Ofcom found as follows:

Ofcom considered that the programme makers took reasonable care to satisfy themselves that the information presented in the programme relating to Professor Bridle’s expertise, qualifications, business practices and his claims about testing asbestos had not been presented in a way that was unfair to Professor Bridle. Nor had relevant information been omitted or ignored. Professor Bridle had been offered an opportunity to contribute. Ofcom therefore found no unfairness to Professor Bridle in the programme as broadcast.

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.

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

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”.

Booker’s false claims (42 articles and counting) downplaying the risks of white asbestos

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UPDATE – When I originally wrote this blog post I knew of 38 articles by Booker on this subject. He’s done at least 4 more since, bringing the total now to 42 and counting…

Poll: Is it right for the Sunday Telegraph to mislead the British public about the health risks of asbestos?

So what can you say about a man who makes the same mistake 38 times? Who, when confronted by a mountain of evidence demonstrating that his informant is a charlatan convicted under the Trade Descriptions Act, continues to repeat his claims? Who elevates the untested claims of bloggers above peer-reviewed papers? Who sticks to his path through a blizzard of facts? What should we deduce about the Sunday Telegraph’s columnist Christopher Booker? – George Monbiot, Guardian

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the false claims made by Christopher Booker in downplaying the health risks of white asbestos.

I thought it might be useful to post a comprehensive list of those articles here. My particular favourite is the frankly surreal (and yes, false) claim that white asbestos is “chemically identical to talcum powder”, which even made it into a Parliamentary question back in 2002. The claim was later regurgitated in this industry press release, and repeated again on John Bridle’s website here.

Striking, too is Booker’s frequent repetition of the asbestos industry’s non-denial-denial that their product poses “no measurable risk to health”.

See also Miningwatch: “Refuting Industry Claims That Chrysotile Asbestos Is Safe” and the HSE: “HSE confirms white asbestos remains a threat”.

1. C. Booker, ‘Billions to be spent on nonexistent risk’, Sunday Telegraph, 13 January 2002 –
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1381270/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
2. C. Booker, ‘“Unnecessary” asbestos bill will top £8bn’, Telegraph, 27 January 2002, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1382802/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
3. C. Booker, ‘The great asbestos cull begins’, Sunday Telegraph,
10 February 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1384329/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
4. C. Booker, ‘Substance abuse’, Sunday Telegraph, 3 March 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1386576/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
5. C. Booker, ‘Asbestos claims on trial’, Sunday Telegraph, 21 April 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1391639/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
6. C. Booker, ‘Asbestos scare costs homeowners millions’, Sunday Telegraph, 19 May 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1394644/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
7. C. Booker, ‘Scaremongers cost industry billions’, Sunday Telegraph, 30 June 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1398805/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
8. C. Booker, ‘No ceiling to the asbestos scam’, Sunday Telegraph, 18 August 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1404693/Christopher-Booker-Notebook.html
9. C. Booker, ‘Tories challenge “sneaky” asbestos legislation’, Sunday Telegraph, 25 August 2002, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1405310/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
10. C. Booker, ‘Our costliest law must wait’, Sunday Telegraph, 8 September 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1406611/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
11. C. Booker, ‘The $350bn scam’, Sunday Telegraph, 15 September 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1407234/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
12. C. Booker, ‘We put the brake on the costliest law in British history’, Sunday Telegraph, 20 October 2002, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1410696/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
13. C. Booker, ‘Commons drubbing fails to stop our costliest statute’, Sunday Telegraph, 27 October 2002, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1411381/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
14. C. Booker, ‘A blast from Burchill’, Sunday Telegraph, 10 November 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/1412709/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
15. C. Booker, ‘Smallholders lumbered with petty regulation’, Sunday Telegraph, 17 November 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1413403/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
16. C. Booker, ‘HSE blunders in new law’, Sunday Telegraph, 7 December 2002,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1415521/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
17. C. Booker, ‘How much longer will the HSE tolerate this racket?’, Sunday Telegraph, 16 February 2003, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1422214/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
18. C. Booker, ‘Home “written off” in mix-up over asbestos’, Sunday Telegraph, 9 November 2003,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1446248/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
19. C. Booker, ‘The BBC helps to sex up the asbestos threat’, Sunday Telegraph, 1 February 2004,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1453151/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
20. C. Booker, ‘Let’s not spend £8bn to get rid of this stuff ’, Sunday Telegraph, 16 May 2004,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1461994/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
21. C. Booker, ‘Keep the asbestos hysteria flying’, Sunday Telegraph, 23 May 2004,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/1462582/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
22. C. Booker, ‘EC offices get a clean bill of health – for £1bn’, Sunday Telegraph, 8 August 2004,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/1468894/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
23. C. Booker, ‘HSE has second thoughts on asbestos rip-off ’, Sunday Telegraph, 13 November 2004,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1476559/Notebook.html
24. C. Booker, ‘“Frivolous asbestos claims” are a serious matter for Names’, Sunday Telegraph, 20 February 2005 – no longer
available on the Telegraph’s website at the time of writing. A pay-for-view version is archived here: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-8928598.html
25. C. Brooker, ‘A dangerous level of asbestos inexpertise’, Sunday Telegraph, 10 October 2005,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1499690/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
26. C. Booker, ‘Fatal cracks appear in asbestos scam as HSE shifts its ground’, Sunday Telegraph, 11 December 2005,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1505199/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
27. C. Booker, ‘No, Winifred, the “asbestos in the organ” scam is not “very rare”’, Sunday Telegraph, 15 January 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1507831/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
28. C. Booker, ‘Environment Agency shows its asbestos ignorance’, Sunday Telegraph, 5 February 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1509655/Christopher-Booker’s-notebook.html
29. C. Booker, ‘The bizarre death-by-drawing-pin scare’, Sunday Telegraph, 9 April 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1515200/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
30. C. Booker, ‘The Environment Agency turns a livelihood to rubble’, Sunday Telegraph, 16 April 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1515856/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
31. C. Booker, ‘The asbestos sting goes on’, Sunday Telegraph, 25 June 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1522213/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
32. C. Booker, ‘When we are dead and buried we will be hazardous waste’, Sunday Telegraph, 16 July 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1524033/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
33. C. Booker, ‘Great asbestos scam faces a revenue loss of £½bn a year’, Sunday Telegraph, 6 August 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1525683/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
34. C. Booker, ‘The BBC falls for the asbestos scam’, Sunday Telegraph, 15 October 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1531446/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
35. C. Booker, ‘Why would the BBC have a go at the asbestos watchdog?’, Sunday Telegraph, 21 October 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1532048/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
36. C. Booker, ‘BBC bites watchdog again’, Sunday Telegraph, 2 December 2006,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1535834/EU-orders-anend-to-the-Spanish-acquisition.html
37. C. Booker, ‘Asbestos – The most expensive word in history’ – Daily Telegraph, 6 November 2007 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2007/11/06/eaasbes106.xml
38. C. Booker, ‘Farmers face £6bn bill for asbestos clean-up’, Sunday Telegraph, 25 May 2008 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/05/25/do2502.xml

UPDATE – here are a few more:

39. C. Booker, ‘The great moonbat is the one who’s spreading “misinformation” about asbestos’, Sunday Telegraph, 28 September 2008 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/3562445/Carbon-capture-is-not-here-yet.html

40. C. Booker,  ‘White asbestos proved fatal for their livelihood”, Sunday Telegraph, 19 October 2008 http://findarticles.com/p/news-articles/sunday-telegraph-the-london-uk/mi_8064/is_20081019/white-asbestos-proved-fatal-livelihood/ai_n46519650/

41. C. Booker, ‘The BBC keeps the asbestos scare flying’, Sunday Telegraph, 2 November 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/3563191/Climate-Change-Bill-makes-chilling-reading.html

42. C. Booker, ‘The Great Asbestos Hysteria’, Daily Mail, 23 February 2010 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1253022/The-Great-Asbestos-Hysteria-How-man-claims-BBC-profiteering-firms-politicians-grossly-exaggerated-dangers.html

Booker unbridled…

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From George Monbiot’s latest column in The Guardian:

So what can you say about a man who makes the same mistake 38 times? Who, when confronted by a mountain of evidence demonstrating that his informant is a charlatan convicted under the Trade Descriptions Act, continues to repeat his claims? Who elevates the untested claims of bloggers above peer-reviewed papers? Who sticks to his path through a blizzard of facts? What should we deduce about the Sunday Telegraph’s columnist Christopher Booker?

This week Richard Wilson’s book Don’t Get Fooled Again is published. It contains a fascinating chapter on Booker’s claims about white asbestos. Since 2002, he has published 38 articles on this topic, and every one of them is wrong. He champions the work of John Bridle, who has described himself as “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”. Bridle has claimed to possess an honorary professorship from the Russian Academy of Sciences, to be a consultant to an institute at the University of Glamorgan, the chief asbestos consultant for an asbestos centre in Lisbon, and a consultant to Vale of Glamorgan trading standards department. None of these claims is true. Neither the institute at the University of Glamorgan nor the centre in Lisbon have ever existed. His only relationship with the Glamorgan trading standards department is to have been successfully prosecuted by it for claiming a qualification he does not possess.

None of this deters Mr Booker. Armed with Bridle’s claims, for the past six years he has waged a campaign against asbestos science. White asbestos cement, he maintains “poses no measurable risk to health”. He contends that “not a single case” of mesothelioma – the cancer caused by exposure to asbestos – “has ever been scientifically linked with asbestos cement”. A paper commissioned by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, he says, “concluded that the risk from white asbestos is ‘virtually zero’”.

Booker tells me he has read this paper. Oh yes? The term he quotes – “virtually zero” – does not appear in it. It does show that white asbestos (chrysotile) is less dangerous than brown or blue asbestos. But, while there is uncertainty about the numbers, it still presents a risk of mesothelioma, which depends on the level of exposure. People exposed to a high dose (between 10 and 100 fibres per millilitre per year (f/ml.yr)) have a risk (around two deaths per 100,000 for each f/ml.yr) of contracting this cancer. Only when the dose falls to less than 0.1 f/ml.yr does it become “probably insignficant”. But Booker’s columns contain no such caveat. He creates the impression that white asbestos is safe at all doses. The paper he misquotes also cites five scientific studies of exposure to asbestos cement, which record “high levels of mesothelioma mortality”.

Two years ago, John Bridle’s misleading CV and dodgy record were exposed by the BBC’s You and Yours programme. So the BBC immediately became part of the conspiracy: in Booker’s words “a concerted move by the powerful ‘anti-asbestos lobby’ to silence Bridle”. He suggested that the broadcasting regulator Ofcom would clear Bridle’s name. In June this year it threw out Bridle’s complaint and published evidence even more damning than that contained in the programme. So has Booker changed the way he sees “Britain’s leading practical asbestos expert”? Far from it. He tells me that “my view of Ofcom has plummeted”: it too has joined the conspiracy.

We are not talking about trivia here. This is a matter of life and death. How many people might have been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos dust as a result of reading and believing Booker’s columns?

Bridle unbuttoned… Ofcom’s damning ruling against bogus expert who claimed white asbestos posed ‘no measurable risk to health’

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For a number of years, a businessman with links to the asbestos industry, calling himself “Professor” John Bridle has been trying to convince the world that white asbestos poses ‘no measurable risk to health’.

In October 2006, the BBC’s You and Yours programme ran an exposé of Bridle and his claims, accusing him of “lies”,”self-aggrandizement” and running unaccredited tests on asbestos samples on the basis of his purported expertise. Following a complaint by Bridle, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom carried out a detailed review of the programme’s claims. Their findings (see pp45-63 of this pdf), issued earlier this year, make for damning reading: 

This edition of “You and Yours” included a report on Professor John Bridle, who it introduced with the words: “the man behind Asbestos Watchdog who claims to have saved people millions of pounds, but the claims about himself are littered with lies”. The programme stated that Professor Bridle, an asbestos surveyor, portrayed himself as “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”. The programme claimed that Professor Bridle’s views on the safety of one type of asbestos were contrary to those held by the British Government, the Health and Safety Executive and the World Health Organisation, among others. The  programme also questioned Professor Bridle’s credentials and expertise in testing for the presence of asbestos.

Professor Bridle complained to Ofcom that he was treated unfairly in the programme as broadcast in that he was unfairly portrayed as a liar and charlatan; his expertise and qualifications were questioned along with his business credentials; it alleged, wrongly, that he carried out unauthorised white asbestos “testing” and that he had claimed that asbestos posed no measurable risk to health; and, it failed to include “evidence” provided by him that offset the criticisms made in the programme.

Ofcom found as follows:

Ofcom considered that the programme makers took reasonable care to satisfy themselves that the information presented in the programme relating to Professor Bridle’s expertise, qualifications, business practices and his claims about testing asbestos had not been presented in a way that was unfair to Professor Bridle. Nor had relevant information been omitted or ignored. Professor Bridle had been offered an opportunity to contribute. Ofcom therefore found no unfairness to Professor Bridle in the programme as broadcast.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I take a close look at John Bridle’s claims, and at his success in persuading some parts of the media to take them seriously.

The Cigarette Century

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cultural history of the cigarette might not seem like the most obvious choice for a compelling read. But Harvard medical historian Allan M Brandt’s extraordinary work, ‘The Cigarette Century’ is a book that that strays a long way from the obvious. Brandt is both a meticulous historian and an eloquent writer – the book is reportedly the product of 20 years of research. In charting the rise and fall of the cigarette - from its humble and disreputable origins in the 19th century to its pre-eminence in the 1950s, and its gradual decline, in the face of growing evidence of its deadly effects – Brandt also recounts the evolution of modern American society; the growth of mass-production, the growing sophistication of industry lobbyists in Congress and - crucially – the birth of the advertising and public relations industries.

Drawing on confidential industry documents – many of them released under legal duress following a series of law-suits in the 1980s and 1990s - Brandt shows how tobacco companies deliberately sought to suppress evidence of the cigarette’s harmful effects, and deployed cutting-edge PR techniques to manipulate public opinion, creating the impression that the science around smoking and cancer was ‘unproven’ long after a clear consensus had emerged among experts.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I show how the techniques developed by the tobacco industry have become the standard tactic for an industry fighting a rearguard action against overwhelming scientific evidence of the dangers of its products.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 21, 2008 at 1:38 pm