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Max Dunbar reviews Don’t Get Fooled Again

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From Max Dunbar

If you’re new to the explosion in investigative scepticism then Richard Wilson’s book on bullshit past and present serves as an excellent primer. You’ll find excellent chapters on the AIDS denial epidemic that’s killing Africa, the rise and fall of the Holocaust denier and fake historian David Irving, the socially acceptable lunacy of alternative medicine. For critics like Dan Hind who feel that sceptics take on too soft targets, there are savage explorations of America’s internment policies, the cover-up of the link between smoking and cancer and the profligate corruption of the Enron corporation.

But there are also revelations for the seasoned sceptic. Wilson has a fascinating chapter on Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s pet agronomist who denounced Darwinism as ‘bourgeois’ (so much for the rational atheist superstate) and claimed that ‘wheat could be trained to thrive in a cold climate by being soaked in freezing water’. There’s also the asbestos charlatan John Bridle, who claimed for years and despite massive evidence to the contrary that white asbestos was harmless: his assertions were plugged throughout the 2000s by the ludicrous Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker.

As Wilson points out, we must now be sceptical even of sceptics: deniers of the Holocaust and Srebrenica and climate change and 9/11 and 7/7. These are people who use the language of evidence and objectivity in a scramble for the moral high ground. Yet their florid and bizarre claims are only ever backed up with plaintive cries of ‘Open your mind’ or ‘How do we know?’ The pitiful trajectory of David Shayler will serve for all these cases: a former MI5 agent jailed for exposing very real conspiracies, Shayler was reduced to babbling in a Somerset town hall that he was ‘God incarnated as spirit and man… Journalists are asked to arrive with an open mind.’

Wilson draws a firm line between scepticism and denial in a paragraph that should be spraypainted in ten-foot letters on the houses of every smug 9/11 lunatic and apologist for fascism:

Sceptics form their beliefs on the basis of concrete facts, and evaluate each piece of evidence on its own merits. Denialists select their facts on the basis of their pre-existing beliefs, and reject evidence that they dislike, or find inconvenient.

There’s so much gold in Wilson’s book it’s hard to pick out specific examples. Wilson explains in a wonderful aside that the brain regenerates itself every seven years – meaning in effect that you will be a completely different person by November 30 2015. He shatters the postmodern paradigm of a Western imperial Enlightenment forced upon complaining natives by discussing the developing world’s substantial contributions to science.

But somehow Wilson loses his nerve in his chapter on the millennial con-trick of religion. He doesn’t defend its claims about the world (although there was a time when religious apologists did exactly that) rather, he approves of faith as ‘wishful thinking, strategically deployed.’ Theism is ‘a decision to take on, in the apparent absence of compelling evidence either for or against, a set of beliefs that cheer some people up.’ All very comforting, but this is just the Straussianism of the neoconservatives that Wilson rails against in his chapters on Iraq. Only Strauss advocated delusion as a means of keeping the masses under control, rather than a positive lifestyle choice.

‘If religion is the opium of the people,’ Wilson chuckles, ‘then most recreational users I know seem to manage their habit fairly comfortably.’ There’s nothing wrong with lying to yourself to be happy, we all do that from time to time, but there’s something shitty and depressing about the argument that we need to keep these noble lies around to prevent us from killing ourselves. It’s not true, in any case, and for the life of me I don’t understand why advocates of this fashionable pessimism ignore the very real sources of comfort and transcendence in our mortal realm: the appreciation of art and creativity and sport, starting a family, falling in love (which is the defining transcendence for most people).

Wilson also says that ‘It’s not so much faith in God that is the problem – it’s faith in human beings.’ Nope: humanity is more worthy of worship than anything. Ideas, as Wilson has shown in his otherwise essential book, are fair game.

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…”

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 struggles on through the blizzard of facts…

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Today’s Sunday Telegraph has yet another article from Christopher Booker on white asbestos, in which he endorses John Bridle, and repeats his bogus scientific claims.

Booker today states that white asbestos when mixed with cement is “quite harmless because the fibres locked in the cement cannot escape in respirable form”, this was looked at in detail by the Health and Safety Executive last year (see: link). The HSE concluded 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.”

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.