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|ISSN 1470-8108||Issue 105||Autumn 2017|
The UKs unenviable position at the top of global asbestos mortality league tables continues unchallenged according to data sourced from a paper entitled: Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 84 behavioural, environmental and occupational and metabolic risks or clusters of risks, 1990-2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Study 2016 published in The Lancet (September 2017).1 Tables constructed with information from the GBD database ranking national asbestos-related disease (ARD) mortality and mortality rates, relating mostly to occupational asbestos exposures, put the UK in the top three countries worst affected: the UK had the highest ARD mortality rate, came second, after Greenland, for highest age-standardized ARD mortality rate, and was third for ARD mortality after the US and China.2
Comparing UK data extracted from the GBD database with Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures is a somewhat perplexing experience. The latest HSE asbestos mortality statistics were released in July 2017 and listed 2,542 mesothelioma deaths in 2015. Whereas the HSE posits that there are currently about as many lung cancer deaths attributed to past asbestos exposure each year in Great Britain as there are mesothelioma deaths, the GBD study puts the ratio of asbestos-related lung cancer deaths : mesothelioma deaths at around five to one. The breakdown of UK occupational ARD deaths for 2016 in the GBD study was as follows: 2,837 mesothelioma; 14,056 lung cancer; 934 ovarian and larynx cancer; and 209 asbestosis (also, 27 from non-occupational mesothelioma). This gives a total of more than 18,000 ARD deaths according to the GBD study compared with around 5,000 according to the HSE.3
Whether it is 5,000 or 18,000 Britons dying every year from asbestos diseases some sectors are worse affected than others, with construction workers, plumbers, electricians and carpenters at greatest risk.4 Feedback from asbestos victims support groups around the country suggest that more women are now being diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases than previously; many of them worked in public buildings believed to have contained asbestos. Data released on October 19, 2017 by the Unison trade union quantified the repercussions of workplace asbestos exposures at schools. Between 1980 and 2015, 335 primary and secondary school teachers, eight school secretaries, eight nursery nurses, 18 school midday assistants and 24 teaching assistants died of the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma. Appalled by these statistics, UNISON head of education Jon Richards said:
The cuts in schools budgets and the fragmentation of the school system have undermined how health and safety risks such as asbestos are managed.5
Of course, these figures tell only part of the story. Although there is no source of information on the number of mesothelioma deaths amongst pupils exposed to asbestos at school, there is no doubt about the repercussions such exposures could have. In 2013, the UK Committee on Carcinogenicity concluded that:
due to the increased life expectancy of children compared to adults, there is an increased lifetime risk of mesothelioma as a result of the long latency period of the disease. Because of differences in life expectancy, for a given dose of asbestos the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is predicted to be about 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30. In reaching our evaluation and taking into consideration that there are a number of uncertainties and data gaps, we conclude that exposure of children to asbestos is likely to render them more vulnerable to developing mesothelioma than exposure of adults to an equivalent asbestos dose. 6
On September 29, 2017 MP Angela Rayner shadow education secretary highlighted the hazard posed by asbestos in schools reiterating the Labor Partys manifesto pledge (2017) to eradicate the contamination in a speech to the Labour Party conference: Instead of wasting millions of pounds on an inefficient free schools programme we will provide funding to ensure our schools are safe that flammable cladding can be removed, sprinklers installed and asbestos cleared. In a 20-page report issued a fortnight later by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) Why unsafe asbestos may still be in our schools in 2050 the government was urged to follow through on a recommendation by the Public Accounts Committee for a nationwide survey detailing the prevalence, condition and management of asbestos within school estate areas.7 The JUAC report called on the government to instigate a remediation program to remove all asbestos from schools commencing with the most dangerous first and, recognizing that: asbestos is a time bomb with a slow burning fuse, pointed out the consequences of downgrading safety protocols:
The Grenfell fire showed how ignoring and weakening safety regulations in order to cut costs led to the horrific deaths of about 80 residents. Similarly decades of government cost cutting, and ineffective asbestos regulations, guidance and funding for Duty Holders in Schools is leading to the deterioration of our school buildings and the asbestos within. The government needs to act now to ensure there is adequate funding, guidance and support for the identification of all unsafe asbestos and its removal from schools.
With millions of tonnes of asbestos-containing products remaining within the countrys infrastructure, the likelihood of occupational and environmental asbestos exposures remains high. It was therefore of serious concern to trade unions, asbestos victims organizations and campaigners that a senior member of the governments Brexit team MP Steve Baker, appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union in June 2017, had formerly evinced support for watering down asbestos regulations.8 In a Hansard entry for October 27, 2010 the following questions by Baker were noted:
Steve Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if he will bring forward proposals to amend the provisions of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 to distinguish the white form of asbestos and the blue and brown forms of that substance. 
Steve Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if he will commission an inquiry into the appropriateness of the health and safety precautions in force in respect of asbestos cement. 9
Querying the suitability of Baker for this role, Unite assistant General Secretary Gail Cartmail remarked:
It is alarming that an MP who holds such extreme views on asbestos has been given such a sensitive position. It demonstrates the Prime Minister is more interested in appeasing hardline Brexiteers, rather than the welfare of workers it is essential that very senior government ministers give a cast-iron guarantee that the existing asbestos regulations will not be weakened or modified and the safety of workers will remain the priority. With thousands of people dying every year, directly as a result of being exposed to asbestos, the priority must be to ensure that the existing safety laws are adhered to and employers who ignore this life saving legislation are prosecuted and convicted. 10
Following up on the trade unions concerns regarding Baker more details about his relationship with numerous powerful interest groups across the planet and donations/payments received surfaced in an article entitled: The new Brexit minister, the arms industry, the American hard right and Equatorial Guinea.11 As recently as 2015, Baker was actively engaging with organizations and individuals supporting a UK derogation to allow the re-use of end of life asbestos cement sheets on farms, and had been advising Lord De Mauley, in March 2015 Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science, about asbestos issues on farms.12 During the writing of this article multiple attempts were made to establish the position of Steve Baker and the Conservative Party on safeguarding EU asbestos protections post-Brexit; neither Baker nor the Party chose to respond.
Untold numbers of workers may have been exposed to asbestos-contaminated blast cleaning abrasives supplied by the Netherlands-based Eurogrit Company, a subsidiary of the Belgian company Sibelco, which were sold to companies in the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and possibly elsewhere.14 The Eurogrit product (Eurogrit coal-slag abrasive (aluminium silicate); labeled Abrasive ISO 11126 N/CS/G)15 at the center of this unfolding health and commercial catastrophe is used primarily for removing rust and dirt from steel surfaces. According to online reports, following the companys discovery of the presence of asbestos on October 5, 2017,16 the Dutch authorities were notified.17 Initially it had been thought that the repercussions from the contamination would be restricted to a few workers employed by 10 Flemish companies over the last few months. As efforts to assess the damage progressed, the numbers grew; as of now, it is believed that: 140+ companies purchased this product, some of which sold it on to other customers; the contaminated products had been on sale for more than two years;18 and the clean-up necessitated to comply with national legislation preventing human asbestos exposures could cost in excess of €200 million.19
Contaminated Eurogrit products were used at steel works, shipbuilders yards, municipal workshops, thermal power stations, on bridge and railway renovations, ships, factory halls and small containers owned by public sector and private corporations including Tata Steel, Eneco, a major energy supplier, Heerema Marine Contractors, a leading marine contractor for offshore oil and gas installations, for use on high-profile projects like the Koningshaven (De Hef) Bridge, a national monument in Rotterdam, the Willemsbrug (Williams Bridge] (Rotterdam) and the Arsenal tower, Vlissingen, a museum and maritime attraction.20 While the SZW Inspectorate of the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment was provided with a list of Eurogrit customers, this information was not publicly available; the details on the companies and projects listed above was gleaned from online sources. Although it has been stated in multiple reports that the contaminated grit came from Ukraine, a UK expert in transnational shipping patterns believes that the situation is more complex speculating as follows:
Ukraine exports aluminium silicate to India. India crushes, and pulverises the material, and returns it to Ukraine from where it is then sold, and shipped to other countries. It appears to me that, as the Indian ore crushers are known to process chrysotile, afterwards the plant machinery isn't deep cleaned and chrysotile fibres remain in the plant as the aluminium silicate is processed contamination could occur.21
Piecing together a timeline from uploads to the websites of Eurogrit, Sibelco,22 the SZW Inspectorate of the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment23 the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV)24 and other sources it appears that Dutch stakeholders acted promptly to identify and quantify the hazards and inform duty holders and at-risk employees. The speed with which the FNV acted to upload advice for at-risk workers within days of the alert being sounded was impressive.25 The SZW Inspectorate wrote directly to all the companies listed by Eurogrit as having received shipments instructing them not to use the products and giving them two days to respond; 98% of them did so. A product recall was issued by Eurogrit and instructions given regarding disposal:
The product concerned was sold through construction centers, hire companies and our factory in Dordrecht. We request buyers who purchased this product to not use this. Closed packages must be kept closed and open packages should be closed and packed in a plastic garbage bag. You can contact our helpdesk staff: 0800 - 0220 220 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. They will then inform you about the method of disposal and financial compensation. 26
According to a briefing by the SZW Inspectorate:
If businesses have any stock of unused blasting grit on their premises, then this blasting grit will be removed by Eurogrit, i.e. at locations in the Netherlands Any used blasting grit containing asbestos should be removed from businesses as waste material containing asbestos. This removal must be carried out under strict conditions.
The Inspectorate SZW will be requesting information from a number of businesses about the manner in which used and unused blasting grit has been or will be removed. Moreover, the Inspectorate SZW or the Environmental Agencies will also be carrying out inspections at a number of locations.27
Compared to the well-honed protocols put into action by Dutch stakeholders, the UKs failure to address this matter in a meaningful way, the lack of information on the extent of contamination and the ramifications of potential exposures are unimpressive, to say the least. Weeks after the existence of this problem had emerged, on November 7, 2017, a spokesperson for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) confirmed the:
HSE is investigating following reports of a small number of UK users who may have been supplied with [asbestos] contaminated shot-blasting material. We are also meeting with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on this issue. As the investigation is ongoing we are unable to comment further at this time.28
Additional questions regarding the scale of the potential problem in the UK and the numbers of workers at risk were not answered on the grounds that enquiries were ongoing. While the refusal to engage with the media was one thing, the failure to provide trade unions with information needed to prevent occupational exposures was viewed by union leaders as obstructive and damaging with Dan Shears, GMB National Health, Safety & Environment Director, seriously concerned that the Eurogrit product could:
be in widespread use, particularly offshore in the UK. We trust that HSE and other government departments will investigate not only on-site usage, but also track consignments back through supply chains to identify and understand if, where and how this product entered the UK, and to ensure that all potential users are identified and informed of the potential health risk.
In these circumstances, time is of the essence and the GMB is disappointed that the HSE has not shared details of worksites and companies with the unions and/or at-risk workforces. Given HSE's current focus on occupational lung disease, it is imperative that the Government take all actions necessary to minimise risk and ensure that there are no further imports of asbestos-contaminated materials.29
Allan Graveson, Senior National Secretary of Nautilus International was similarly alarmed:
Nautilus is profoundly concerned over reports that this material is being traded so threatening the lives of workers today and for many years into the future. The lack of action by regulatory authorities, while not surprising, is inexcusable.30
Hugh Robertson, the Senior Policy Officer for Health and Safety at the Trades Union Congress, was also critical: There have, he wrote been a series of examples of where products containing asbestos have been imported into the UK. Clearly the current system of checking materials for dangerous contaminants is not fit for purpose and both customs and trading standards need the resources to keep these potentially deadly products out.31
The disregard of occupational and public health evinced by the UKs paltry and tardy response to the news regarding the use of asbestos-contaminated shot-blasting material could be seen as a harbinger of a future where the protective cloak of European occupational health directives is withdrawn. With slashed budgets and dwindling personnel how the HSE and trading standards will prevent asbestos exposures from taking place and toxic imports from entering the country remains to be seen. It is unlikely that the future will improve on the present. That being the case, there is no foreseeable end to our countrys worst ever occupational epidemic the one caused by exposure to asbestos.
Mesothelioma Medical Costs
On October 24, 2017, it was announced that a case brought by a mesothelioma claimant from Leeds had resulted in a landmark agreement under which the defendants insurer agreed to cover future medical treatment costs including novel or pioneering therapies.32 As long as the patients oncologist gives approval, expenditures can be claimed under a periodical payments order now in place. The order, says Solicitor Ian Toft helps eradicate some of the uncertainty that comes with settling this type of claim. Treatments are constantly developing and with this, so are the costs. Unfortunately, none of the treatment available to this claimant can be obtained on the NHS. This order has now put the structure in place to ensure that whenever the treatment is needed, it is covered. It gives our client some much-needed peace of mind at such a difficult time of his life.33
Mesothelioma Victory at Edinburgh Court
A shipyard workers 79-year old widow and sons aged 55 and 59 years old were awarded a total of £340,000 compensation by Lord Clarke at the Edinburgh Court of Sessions on October 3, 2017 for his death from mesothelioma. The deceased had been exposed to asbestos whilst employed by the Scottish shipbuilding firm of Henry Robb Ltd. George Mason died aged 81 on February 12, 2016 from epithelioid mesothelioma of the pleura; he had worked at the Leith Shipyard in the 1960s. The company admitted that it had not done enough to protect him from toxic exposures.34
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Initiatives
This autumn the HSE launched two initiatives to raise asbestos awareness and minimize occupational exposures to construction workers and non-specialists. On October 2, 2017 phase two of a targeted HSE construction inspection campaign began, the main objective of which was to ensure protection from particulates in the workplace. Acknowledging the widespread use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products Artex, a once popular decorative asbestos-containing coating, was cited the HSE accepted that duty holders in public and residential structure may be less aware of the hazard than their counterparts in commercial buildings.35 HSE guidance a14: Asbestos Essentials Removing asbestos cement (AC) sheets, gutters etc. and dismantling a small AC structure (September 2017) explains good practice for the removal of asbestos cement products from small structures which can be legally undertaken by non-specialists as non-licensed tasks. Topics considered in the 3-page factsheet include: preparing the work area, equipment, procedures, overlaying AC sheets, removal, cleaning, disposal, personal decontamination clearance and checking off. The list of essential HSE reading material included in this leaflet is informative.36
1 GBD Risk Factors Collaborators. Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 84 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks, 19902016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. September 16, 2017.http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(17)32366-8/abstract
2 Allen D, Kazan-Allen L. Global Asbestos Mortality Data. October 2017.
3 HSE. Asbestos related lung cancer. October, 2016.
5 Unison. Figures reveal toll of asbestos in schools. October 19, 2017.
6 Committee on Carcinogenicity. Statement on the Relative Vulnerability of Children to Asbestos Compared to Adults. June 7, 2013.
7 Joint Union Asbestos Committee. Why unsafe asbestos may still be in our schools in 2050. October 11, 2017.
8 Unite. New Brexit minister supports scrapping asbestos laws. The Building Worker. Autumn 2017. Page 5.
9 Hansard. House of Commons Written Answers for 27 Oct 2010.
10 Unite. Concern that new Brexit minister supports removing asbestos laws. June 24, 2017
11 Ramsay A, Geoghegan P. The new Brexit minister, the arms industry, the American hard right
and Equatorial Guinea. July 1, 2017.
12 Conservative Rural Affairs Group. The Regulation of Use and Disposal of Asbestos Cement. September 2015.
13 The lack of English language information for this article necessitated reliance on google translations; in some circumstances, the translations did not make sense and the author has used her judgment to interpret them. Apologies for any mistranslations.
14 According to the Eurogrit BV: Company Profile, the company markets its services to construction companies and governmental agencies throughout the Netherlands and internationally.
15 Terugroepactie Eurogrit straalmiddel smeltslak (aluminium silicaat) [Recall of Eurogrit coal-slag abrasive (aluminium silicate)].
16 Asbesthoudend straalgrit [Asbestos-containing blasting grit]. November 3, 2017.
17 FNV krijgt inzage in lijst Eurogrit [FNV gets access to Eurogrit list]. October 18, 2017.
18 Fonds Eurogrit-schade afgewezen [Eurogrit damage fund rejected]. November 2, 2017.
19 Asbest in schoonmaakzand warmtekrachtcentrale Houten [Asbestos found in cleaning sand at thermal power plant in Houten]. October 7, 2017.
20 Straalmiddel van Eurogrit langer vervuild met asbest [Asbestos contamination of Eurogrit blasting grit longstanding]. November 1, 2017.
21 Email from Bill Lawrence to Laurie Kazan-Allen. November 9, 2017.
22 Inspectie ISZW deelt straalgrit smeltslak in laagste risicoklasse in [SZW inspection rules Eurogrit contamination lowest risk class].
23 Asbesthoudend straalgrit [Asbestos-containing blasting grit]. November 3, 2017.
24 Asbest bij Eurogrit: dit kun je doen [Asbestos at Eurogrit: what to do].
25 Asbest bij Eurogrit: lees hier wat je kunt doe [Asbestos at Eurogrit: read here what you can do]. October 11, 2017.
26 Terugroepactie Eurogrit straalmiddel smeltslak (aluminium silicaat) [Recall of Eurogrit coal-slag abrasive (aluminium silicate)].
27 Inspectorate SZW. Cleaning up contaminated blasting grit permitted under strict conditions. October 31, 2017. (Uploaded November 6, 2017).
28 Email to Laurie Kazan-Allen from HSE media. November 7, 2017.
29 Email to Laurie Kazan-Allen from Dan Shears. November 8, 2017.
30 Email to Laurie Kazan-Allen from Allan Graveson. November 8, 2017.
31 Email to Laurie Kazan-Allen from Hugh Robertson. November 7, 2017.
32 Landmark Agreement To Provide For Cancer Treatment In Mesothelioma Legal Case. October 24, 2017.
33 Hyde J. Lawyers agree landmark deal to fund victims future care. October 25, 2017.
34 Court of Session. GEORGE EDWARD MANSON AND OTHERS Pursuers against HENRY ROBB LTD. October 3, 2017.
35 HSE Warning Shows Importance of Dealing with Dust. (October 2017).
36 a14: Asbestos Essentials Removing asbestos cement (AC) sheets, gutters etc. and dismantling a small AC structure. September 2017.
Compiled by Laurie Kazan-Allen