Bookers Notebook

Sunday Telegraph Jan 13th 2002

Thanks to a decision by British and Brussels officials deliberately to confuse two totally different chemicals sharing the common name 'asbestos', Britain will soon face a wholly unnecessary bill running into tens of billions of pounds. Everyone knows 'asbestos' is a highly dangerous product, which it is officially claimed will kill 250,000 people in the European Union in the next 35 years. This is why the Health and Safety Executive now wants to issue a new law imposing all sorts of costly requirements on property owners which even the HSE admits will cost #8 billion, just for surveying and monitoring.

What is less well known is that there are two quite different chemicals lumped together under the name 'asbestos', so that 90 percent of this expenditure will be directed at a product which poses no risk to human health. and which is chemically identical to talcum powder. Furthermore the highly alarmist projections of deaths are based on a study which unwittingly confused the two chemicals. And, although scientific studies commssioned by the HSE itself brought this confusion to light, EU and HSE officials - unlike their US counterparts - have refused to alter their policy.

It was in the 1950s that scientists including Professor Richard Doll, of anti-tobacco fame, discovered that 'blue' and 'brown' asbestos, with its sharp, metallic fibres of iron silicate, is a killer, causing a range of lung diseases and cancer. But by one of the most unfortunate sleights of hand in scientific history, this demonisation was extended to include 'white' or chrysotile asbestos, magnesium silicate, just because it shares the same name. The silky fibres of white asbestos, which also make talcum powder, are used in a huge variety of products, from cement roofing slates and tiles to ironing boards and cookers. It also occurs naturally in the air, so that we each have an average two million abestos particles in our lungs, adding 20,000 a day.

Until the 1980s legislation recognised the difference between the two asbestos types. But a report by ProfessorJulian Peto of the Institute of Cancer Research, based on workers at a Rochdale textile factory, seemed to show that white asbestos was just as dangerous as the blue and brown variety, A series of Brussels directives lumped the two together. Since then this has driven UK policy and law, and official projections of the asbestos-related death rate, claiming 3000 deaths a year, are based on figures from Peto and Doll.

What is astonishing, however, is that the HSE itself has subsequently commissioned other studies, such as those by Dr Alan Gibbs and Professor F Pooley, showing that Peto misread the evidence, and that residues in the workers' lungs he studied came from blue and brown asbestos. Further internal HSE studies, including a paper by John Hodgson and Andrew Darnton in 2000, concluded that the risk from white asbestos is 'virtually zero'. Yet despite all this disproof the HSE has not changed its policy. This is partly because it cannot defy EU law, and partly because there is now a very powerful lobby representing commercial and consultancy interests, which stand to make billions of pounds from surveys and from replacing white asbestos with products, such as cellulose, which may well pose a greater health risk. Already householders are being told they cannot sell their properties unless they replace asbestos cement products at a cost of thousands of pounds.

The one professional expert in Britain who has tried to shout about this is John Bridle, based in south Wales, now UK scientific spokesman for the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association, covering producers in 17 countries. What particularly alarms Mr Bridle are the wildly unscientific claims made in the growing number of asbestos-related court cases (he is anxious to advise any firm with an asbestos problem, via jbridle@whiteasbestos.fsnet.co.uk); and even more the new regulations proposed by the HSE, which will require every non-domestic property owner to pay for expensive surveys and monitoring of their premises. This the HSE estimates will cost #8 billion, apart from the far greater cost of replacing asbestos ruled to be 'dangerous'. In the 1980s the US Environmental Protection Agency went down this same track until, in 1992, a senior US court dismissed evidence based on the Peto report, ruling that more people are likely to "die from inhalation of toothpicks than from white asbestos fibres". That is why, when 40 tonnes of white asbestos were chucked out by the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, the EPA advised that this posed no danger. In Britain we are still in thrall to one of the craziest health scares on record, and we are all about to pay the price: tens of billions of pounds.
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How many farm animals has the Department for the Elimination of Farming and Rural Affairs killed since the foot-and-mouth epidemic officially ended on September 30? This question was put by Tory front bench spokesman Peter Ainsworth to farming minister Margaret Beckett just before Christmas. Carefully sidestepping his question, she replied that the number slaughtered on 'infected premises' or 'on suspicion' was a mere 4,125. The correct answer to Mr Ainsworth's question, taken from the Defra website last week, is that the number of animals killed since September 30 is now 158,000.

The explanation for Mrs Beckett's weasel words is that she does not want to draw attention to the continuing mass-slaughter under the controversial 'contiguous cull' policy launched last March on the advice of Professor Roy Anderson and his Imperial College computer team. Defra has also now released figures showing that, of 6 million animals slaughtered, only one in seven was infected with FMD. In other words, thanks to the Anderson cull policy, as many as 85 percent of the animals killed were healthy.

It is of course precisely because killing healthy animals is still a criminal offence that the Government is introducing its Animal Health Bill, due for its Lords second reading on Tuesday. This will give Defra the unprecedented power to kill any animal it wants, without having to give reason and taking away from farmers any legal right to protest. It was doubtless in anticipation of trouble from angry peers that Anderson's team last week published a paper in Nature, claiming that, if BSE is found in sheep, this could lead to 150,000 deaths from CJD. This is so wonderfully dotty one scarcely knows where to begin. There is no shred of evidence any sheep has ever suffered from BSE or is likely to. And there is still no evidence, despite the efforts of well-funded scientists, that BSE causes CJD (the incidence of which is now falling just when, if there were any link, it should be rising).

Yet on the basis of this mad double hypothesis, the Anderson team produces a paper which is endorsed by Prof Sir John Krebs, Fellow of the Royal Society and head of the Food Standards Agency, and Prof Robert May FRS, Mr Blair's former Chief Scientist. It was May who recommended as his successor Prof David King FRS, who in turn, on Krebs's recommendation, appointed Prof Anderson FRS as chief policy advisor on foot-and-mouth. Krebs, May and Anderson all worked together at the Oxford University Zoology Department, which also employs Professor Sir Brian Follett FRS, who also just happens to have been picked by the Royal Society to chair Mr Blair's inquiry into the scientific handling of foot-and-mouth. Put all these connections together and it may be seen why we are never going to get an independent public inquiry into last year's foot-and-mouth disaster.
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Last week it was widely reported that Cornish farmer Bob Partridge faces a #700 bill for the removal of 50 fridges dumped on his land because of the new EU regulation making it legally impossible to dispose of unwanted fridges. When last October I first reported that this lunatic law would lead to the the mass-dumping of fridges in Britain's countryside, this met with vehement public denials from Geoffrey Martin, the European Commission's head man in Britain (until I told him where to do his homework). In the New Years honours list, Mr Martin was awarded the OBE (which presumably now means 'Order of the Brussels Empire'). Alas, he is shortly to leave his post. Since he has spent much of the past eight years vainly trying to prove me wrong, I shall miss him.