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Posts Tagged ‘asbestos

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.