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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 16/05/2004)

Let's not spend 8bn to get rid of this stuff
Accessible, though inaccessible
Moonlighting Eurocrat

Let's not spend 8bn to get rid of this stuff

A series of new studies by internationally-respected scientists have exposed a scientific blunder that threatens to cost tens of billions of pounds, and which could affect millions of businesses and homeowners.

New laws introduced by Brussels and the Health and Safety Executive - for example, the Control of Asbestos at Work regulations which come into force this week - make no distinction between the genuinely dangerous amphibole forms of asbestos and white asbestos or chrysotile, a wholly different mineral chemically indistinguishable from talcum powder.

The resulting confusion, as I have previously reported in this column, is giving rise to shameless commercial exploitation, on a huge scale. But the new studies confirm that white asbestos cement and Artex plaster, comprising well over 90 per cent of all the "asbestos-containing materials" in some 10 million buildings across the UK, pose no risk to human health whatever.

What is more, the cellulose fibre materials promoted by the EC and the HSE as a substitute for asbestos have never been subjected to proper safety tests. It now appears that they have properties which could make them just as damaging to health as the amphibole forms of asbestos.

The HSE and the European Commission base their claim that chrysotile is dangerous on the belief that its fibres, like those of the amphiboles, can persist in human lungs for years, causing cancer, notably mesothelioma. But the new studies show there is no mechanism whereby white asbestos cement or Artex can have this effect.

The first study, conducted by a team led by Dr John Hoskins (formerly of the Medical Research Council and an international consultant since 1998), is based on the most comprehensive survey of the scientific findings on this issue ever carried out. Their peer-approved report cites 107 different authorities, whereas the HSE rests its case on only one in-house study by two of its own scientists. The report, by Hoskins and others, shows that white asbestos cement and Artex have never given rise to a single case of mesothelioma (the HSE's claims are based only on statistical estimates and untested hypotheses).

This is confirmed in a separate study by Professor Fred Pooley of Cardiff University, based on electron microscopy. Prof Pooley has established that asbestos fibres undergo a chemical change when mixed with cement, which bonds them and coats them with calcium, thus making them non-respirable.

A third report, from a team led by Dr David Bernstein, a toxicologist based in Geneva who has worked extensively for the European Commission, shows that biopersistence of chrysotile fibres in the lungs is only between seven hours and two weeks, much too brief to cause damage, while that of the cellulose fibres used in asbestos substitutes can be more than three years, making them potentially as carcinogenic as amphiboles.

As the HSE admits, no full safety tests have been carried out on the substitutes for asbestos which it and the Commission accept as safe. However, one of the main manufacturers has set aside 50 million to cover legal costs should future studies show these fibres to be carcinogenic.

The significance of these findings is immense. Nearly half of the work carried out by the 870 contractors licensed by the HSE (most of them members of Arca, the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association) is concerned with white asbestos cement or Artex. The latter, a plaster containing minute amounts of white asbestos, is used in millions of homes and, by law, can only be handled by licensed contractors.

Evidence compiled by Asbestos Watchdog (an organisation set up following earlier reports in this column, to which thousands of Telegraph readers responded) shows the frightening extent to which contractors and surveyors are exploiting the officially-promoted confusion over asbestos, both by overcharging and by misleading businesses and homeowners as to whether work is actually required, either by law or for safety.

The problem is illustrated on a small scale by the nightmare facing the small Berkshire village of Basildon. Last week the villagers learned that they face a bill of 4,500 for the removal of a small amount of Artex from their village hall. Yet even the HSE admits that Artex may soon have to be taken out of the legislation, because any release of asbestos fibres is too infinitesimal to be measured.

At the other end of the scale, the Irish Health and Safety Authority (the equivalent of the HSE) is insisting that, under EC law, a huge regeneration scheme on the Ballymun flats in Dublin cannot go ahead until Artex has been removed. The mind-boggling cost of this - 80 million - is making front-page headlines in Ireland.

This week, when the HSE's new regulations come into force, implementing an EC directive, the owners and managers of millions of non-domestic properties, including "social housing", must show that they have carried out a survey identifying all asbestos on their premises, with proposals for how it should be managed. The HSE's original estimate for the cost of these regulations was 8 billion, making them the most expensive legislation ever put on the statute book. Although, under parliamentary pressure, they have several times reduced this figure, it does not allow for the overcharging by contractors and surveyors which makes even their original estimate seem modest.

This is bad enough, but there is also the damage inflicted on thousands of homeowners to take into account. Although domestic properties are not covered by the legislation, they are being told by unscrupulous (or ignorant) surveyors and estate agents that their properties are unsaleable or have been drastically reduced in value, because they contain white asbestos cement or Artex which, thanks to the hysteria promoted by the HSE, are now widely viewed as deadly.

The economic implications of this scare are incalculable. One re-insurance group, Equitas, is reported to have reserved 56 billion to cover possible asbestos claims. Yet the new scientific findings (they can be read on the internet at www.asbestoswatchdog. co.uk) are so devastating that there is now an overwhelming case for a full, independent inquiry into this scandal.

Previously, in defending these hugely damaging regulations, ministers have merely taken refuge in repeating the faulty data fed them by the HSE. Now the flaws in the HSE's science have been so comprehensively exposed, the Government cannot be allowed to promote this shameless scam any longer.

Accessible, though inaccessible

When Roger and Pam Richards retired from running a small tourist shop on Folkestone harbour, they applied for permission to install a lavatory at the back of a small storeroom, for the benefit of their new tenants, refugees from Zimbawe.

Shepway council planning officials insisted that the new lavatory be accessible to wheelchairs, at an additional cost of many hundreds of pounds. That the required changes would take up much of the storage space, and that the lavatory was for use only by those working in the shop, was considered irrelevant.

Mr and Mrs Rogers pointed out that, since the storeroom doorway was not wide enough for a wheelchair, it would be impossible for any wheelchair user to reach the lavatory anyway. The officials said this did not concern them; they had complied with the law.

Shepway council is in the process of closing down all its public lavatories in Folkestone. A factor in its decision has been the excessive cost of converting them to allow wheelchair access.

Moonlighting Eurocrat

Those who support the appointment of Chris Patten as the new president of the European Commission should know that their man appears to have committed a serious breach of EU law. Article 213 of the Treaty of Rome states that "members of the Commission may not, during their term of office, engage in any other occupation, whether gainful or not". Any commissioner who breaks this law must be "compulsorily retired" or lose his 60,000 a year pension.

Since last year, in addition to being a commissioner, Mr Patten has been Chancellor of Oxford University, which must surely count as an "occupation". But the good news for Mr Patten is that the European Court of Justice can only enforce the rule after an application by the Council of Ministers or the commission itself, which suggests that he will continue to get away with breaking the law. Whether it would be wise to make him head of the whole show is another matter.