Issue 26: Winter 1996/97
Table of Contents:
1. Pressure Mounts for European Ban on Chrysotile
2. Asbestos Prosecutions
3. Contamination of Residential Properties
4. T&N plc: Complaint Denied
5. News Round-Up
1. Pressure Mounts for European Ban on Chrysotile
Dwindling Western European markets for chrysotile are being threatened by European Community (EC) moves to ban all forms of asbestos and recommendations for public health protection made by an international group of experts. The implementation on January 1, 1997 of the French asbestos ban brings to eight, out of a total of fifteen, the number of EC members which have introduced a ban. On the whole, the European Commission favors harrmonization of the community's approach to asbestos; the number of member nations holding out against a complete ban looks to be decreasing with a recent statement by the Health & Safety Commission (HSC), the body which advises the British government. On February 17, 1997 the HSC called on the government to support a European ban on "all uses of chrysotile... except for a limited number of essential uses." In addition, recommendations were made that the Secretary of State for the Environment consider introducing schemes to compel building owners to undertake asbestos surveys and to impose asbestos licensing requirements on a broader range of contractors. An HSC Consultative Document will be issued in 1998 on specific proposals for regulatory changes. In the meantime, the two Approved Codes of Practice and guidance notes on asbestos are being reviewed. Frank Davies, Chairman of the HSC, has announced a three-month media campaign to raise public awareness of the "risks from asbestos installed decades ago but which is still in place today." Advertisements in the trade press will be targeted at workers and self-employed contractors engaged in building maintenance and refurbishment work who are at risk of coming into contact with asbestos.
Despite persistent lobbying by victims' groups and trade unions, the use of chrysotile is still legal in Britain. Output from its factories in Widnes and Meldreth make Eternit UK the country's largest manufacturer of chrysotile-containing fiber-cement tiles and sheeting. An Eternit executive refused to comment on the company's plans for the continued use of chrysotile. Andrew Hardinge, a spokesperson for Britain's second largest fiber-cement roofing slate supplier, believes that many people are unaware that asbestos is still being used in this country. Although sales of asbestos roofing slates were depressed during the 1980's, growing complacency and cost savings have resulted in a steady rise; sales of asbestos slates now account for nearly half the country's fiber-cement slate market. Commercial pressures not government prohibitions encouraged Hardinge's firm, CemBrit Building Products Ltd., to cease dealing in products which contain asbestos as of December 1, 1996. CemBrit is owned by a Danish company whose domestic operations have been asbestos-free for several years.
In 1996 a Task Group was commissioned by the International Programme for Chemical Safety (IPCS), run jointly by the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, to assess environmental health risks from chrysotile. Although the meeting in Geneva was held in July, no press release was issued until September. While the experts' conclusions and recommendations have recently been made available, the full report: Environmental Health Criteria Document on Chrysotile Asbestos has not yet been published. Seasoned observers indicate that the pace of this assessment is slow even by the IPCS's leisurely standards. Expectations were high in some circles that the IPCS report would confirm the theory commonly referred to as the 'amphibole hypothesis.' In a recent letter to the editor of the Occupational Environmental Medicine Journal, A.T.Edward et al reiterated the view that "human studies (show)... a strong association between amphibole exposure and mesothelioma whereas for chrysotile it has been weak or non-existent." The authors speculated that the IPCS review of chrysotile will confirm that "amphiboles have a much greater potency than chrysotile for producing meotheliomas." Despite the delay in the release of the complete document, it is clear that the majority opinion went against chrysotile. Links between exposure to chrysotile and asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma were confirmed. Concern was expressed about the continuing use of chrysotile in friable products such as some construction materials and the ensuing risks to maintenance, renovation and demolition workers. The attendance of the Task Group meeting at the WHO headquarters was interesting. Of the fourteen delegates, two were Canadian: Ms. Bette Meek, from Health Canada was the Chair and Dr. G.W.Gibbs was listed as an observer. Documents from the meeting note that Ms. Meek was not present for the discussion of the recommendations for public health protection; Professor John Dement chaired this section of the meeting.
2. Asbestos Prosecutions
Several high-profile prosecutions by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) for infringements of asbestos legislation have resulted in judgments against local authorities and private companies in recent months. The scale of the fines imposed can be better assessed when viewed against an average penalty in 1995/96 of less than £1200 for convictions under the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987 (CAWR) and the Asbestos Licensing Regulations 1983. Figures for penalties imposed under the Health & Safety at Work Act of 1974 (HSWA) were unavailable. In October, two separate prosecutions were brought against Bedfordshire County Council (BCC) for breaching health and safety legislation pertaining to asbestos at several schools. The Council was fined £14,500 by Bedford magistrates for exposing contractors and employees to asbestos in Robert Bloomfield Middle School (Shefford), Redborne Upper School (Ampthill) and Alameda Middle School (Ampthill). BCC pleaded guilty to charges brought under Sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the HSWA, under Regulations 5(1) and 7 of the CAWR and under Regulation 4(1) of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 (MHSWR). Following these incidents Improvement and Prohibition Notices were served on the Council; an action plan and revised procedures for dealing with asbestos have been implemented.
In November, 1996 Southampton City Council (SCC) was fined a total of £26,000 under Section 3(1) of the HSWA after contractors and council tenants were exposed to asbestos. One hundred and thirty council flats were contaminated in Albion Towers when workmen used power tools on amosite insulation board during rewiring work. Asbestos contamination also occurred at Shirley Towers and Sturminster House where renovations were being carried out. John Pickering, the HSE's prosecuting inspector, told the court that even though the council had no record of the asbestos: "it was entirely foreseeable that the flats would contain asbestos" given the age of the buildings. The contractors pleaded guilty to charges brought under Regulations 5 and 8 of the CAWR and were fined £5000 with prosecution costs of £1292.08 for not producing an assessment of work with asbestos and for failing to prevent or control exposure to asbestos of workers and residents at Albion Towers. SCC has now set up an asbestos control unit to administer its new asbestos policy, to undertake a representational survey of council premises over the next two years and to create a database of materials containing asbestos in council properties.
On December 18, magistrates in High Wycombe fined Pinewood Studios and Paramount British Pictures Ltd. a total of £20,000 for an incident which occurred last April during the filming of The Saint at a disused generating station. David Head, a HSE inspector, testified: "During a routine inspection at the studios two inspectors came across a location shot where, in preparation for a shoot, the crew had pulled wires and steam pipes through the annex to the power house, and in so doing disturbed asbestos lagging on the pipework and equipment." Head said the exposure could have affected up to 100 people adding: "It is serious in that any exposure to asbestos can be dangerous but I do know the more exposure you have the more dangerous it is... One person one day is not a significant risk but if someone is exposed several times over a long period of time the risk is considerable." Both companies were charged with contravening Section 3(1) of the HSWA; in addition Paramount admitted breaching Section 2(1) of the HSWA and Regulation 3(1) of the MHSWR.
The prosecution of Surrey County Council and W.S.Atkins Consultants Ltd. by the HSE for contamination allegedly produced by uncontrolled stripping of asbestos-containing pipe insulation in Camberley is due to begin on February 24 at North West Surrey Magistrates Court. The incident at Surrey County Council's premises in July, 1996 allegedly breached Sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the HSWA by neglecting the health and safety of council employees and others not in council employ and Section 11(1) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM) 1994, by failing to supply the planning supervisor with information about the premises. Charges are also being brought against W.S.Atkins Consultants Ltd. under Section 2(1) and 3(1) of HSWA and Section 15(1) of CDM.
The aggressive stance of the HSE as evidenced by the prosecutions discussed above contrasts with the lack of action taken in the case involving the Hermes and Chantry Points high-rise blocks in Paddington, West London. From 1968 to 1991, hundreds of tenants and workmen were exposed to amosite and chrysotile throughout the public and private areas of the building; asbestos was contained in skirting boards, internal walls, doors, partitions, panels, boards and ceilings. Nearly a year after an independent report on the Westminster asbestos scandal was published, a risk assessment by Professor Julian Peto entitled: Health Effects of Asbestos Exposure Among Residents at Chantry Point and Hermes Point confirmed that asbestos levels at the buildings had been significant: "the measurements at the Points are thus towards the upper end of the range observed in other buildings." Although Peto concluded that the risk to the 3,000 former residents was low, he also stated that "dangerous exposures were suffered in the Points during construction, and workers engaged in maintenance may also have suffered substantial exposures from time to time." On February 20 an HSE press spokesperson confirmed that criminal proceedings against Westminster City Council are unlikely due to a lack of evidence.
3. Contamination of Residential Properties
The presence and deterioration of asbestos-containing materials in residential properties throughout the country continues to cause concern among tenants and home-owners. At a public meeting in February, Professor Julian Peto (see article 2) advised former Westminster residents that the health risk from their exposure to asbestos in two Paddington tower blocks was "very low... there is only about a 1 in 20 chance that a single extra cancer will eventually occur amongst the 3,000 ex-residents of the Points." These reassurances were greeted with scepticism by some health activists and trade union officials. A spokesperson for the London Hazards Centre (LHC), the group which produced the Asbestos Hazards Handbook, says that Peto has "underestimated the risk to tenants and those who worked on the blocks." According to the LHC, Peto's risk assessment is fundamentally flawed by his use of "dubious data." The Construction Safety Campaign (CSC) agrees that Peto's findings underestimate the health risks.
People living in the shadow of a former asbestos factory nearly 200 miles north of Westminster were informed that their local council will finally "take effective steps to rid homes in Armley of asbestos contamination." This decision was announced on February 19 by the Leader of Leeds Council, Brian Walker, who criticized the Government and T&N plc, whose subsidiary owned the factory. Walker said: "T&N contaminated the area - and the Government let it happen. What is worse, neither now wants to know. They have walked away and left the Council Tax payers of Leeds to pick up the bill." The Council's decision stems from recommendations made by Patricia Thomas, the Local Government Ombudsman, in her 1996 report. She found the Council guilty of maladministration of the 'Armley Asbestos Issue' prior to 1988. Although local residents welcomed the Council's announcement, they condemned the mechanics of the assistance proposed. Financial aid would only be available for home owners who purchased their properties prior to 1989; grants for decontamination work would be means-tested. Compensation for the devaluation of the Armley properties, estimated to be between £10-£15,000 ($16,000-$24,000) each, has not been offered.
Telford Road Residents Against Asbestos in Scottish Housing (TRAASH) has been campaigning for two years on behalf of local people with serious grievances against the East Kilbride Development Corporation, East Kilbride District Council (EKDC) and South Lanarkshire Council. These authorities consecutively managed housing stock which included three hundred flats in the Murray area of East Kilbride, a new town near Glasgow. Built in the 1960's, two hundred and sixty-five of these properties were sold to their occupants between 1979-95. Each unit contained 360 sq. ft. of chrysotile cement boards and 360 sq. ft. of amosite insulation boarding. TRAASH maintains that while the Corporation and the EKDC knew about the presence of asbestos, the purchasers and tenants did not. Documents show that on September 9, 1983 the Scottish Office advised all councils and development corporations to survey housing stock for asbestos-containing materials. The directive warned local authorities to be "aware that boards containing blue asbestos have recently been identified in some houses owned by two District Councils in Central Scotland. These boards form the inner lining of timber infill panels to the front and rear elevations of four storey brick crosswall maisonettes (such as those in Telford Road) built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. If these boards are damaged or disturbed there is a strong risk of asbestos fibres being released." Minutes from a meeting on June 18, 1985 of the Joint Consultative Committee, consisting of Corporation and EKDC members, show that asbestos surveys had been carried out "to all house-types in the Town...and that 5 housing areas identified as having a problem had been dealt with... an advisory letter would be issued to all Corporation tenants (and also former tenants who had purchased their houses) where asbestos was present in their houses." Letters advising the Telford residents of the survey results were never received. According to the Corporation, the presence of asbestos in the Telford flats was brought to light in February, 1995 by workmen carrying out renovations.
4. T&N plc: Complaint Denied
On December 12, 1996 the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) found against T&N (T&N) plc in a complaint arising from a BBC television documentary entitled: An Acceptable Level of Death which was broadcast in 1994. Although the initial focus of the forty minute program was on the operations of T&N's Newcastle-based subsidiary Newalls Insulation Co. Ltd., the company's overall health record on asbestos-related illnesses and legal practices was also discussed. T&N claimed that the BBC's presentation was unbalanced and misleading: unrepresentative documents on asbestos and health had been selected, the company had been unfairly accused of failing to act on health warnings given in 1958 by Dr. C. Wagner, evidence presented by a former Medical Officer for a T&N subsidiary was compromised, the significance of one particular case, the Standen case, was overshadowed by the 1,700 instances in which T&N had paid out over £24 million compensation, allegations relating to the non-disclosure of documents from the files of Newalls Insulation ignored "difficult legal issues," and an impromptu interview with T&N's Chairman was unfair.
The Commission found that the selection of documents used by the BBC to show that "T&N had known more about the health risks from asbestos than they had been willing to disclose to their workers or the outside world" had not been unfair. The fact that important research by Dr. C. Wagner (1958) was "apparently" not sent to T&N's health committee satisfied the Commission that the BBC's assertion that the company "had not gone far enough" in protecting their workers from health risks was fair. As a company doctor Dr. Kerns' was qualified to express opinions on the health risks of asbestos. His involvement with the Chase Manhattan case against T&N did not preclude his contributing to this program. While finding that the inclusion of T&N's record on compensation would have been helpful, the Commission did not find any unfairness in the summing-up of T&N's actions in the Standen case as "sharp legal footwork." In light of T&N's refusal to give an interview to the BBC during the making of the documentary, it was fair to include footage of T&N's Chairman taken during a business function.
5. News Round-Up
Asbestos Pathogenesis and Litigation, edited by G.A.Peters and B.J.Peters, is volume 13 in the informative textbook series entitled: Sourcebook on Asbestos Diseases. Published by the Michie Company, this book includes articles on a cross-section of topics including The Victims Perspective by Robert Vojakovic and John Gordon, plaintiffs' representatives from Perth, Australia.
A substantial work entitled Once Upon a Time... Asbestos (C'Era una volta... L'Amianto) by S.Silvestri and E. Merler documents experiences with asbestos control in Tuscany.
Information for People with Mesothelioma and their Carers by Mavis Robinson was well regarded when it first appeared two years ago. The booklet, updated in 1996, can be obtained from the author. Tel: 0113 260 6182.
Asbestos Ban in France: Too Late for Many by Jean-Claude Zerbib was the lead article in the November, 1996 issue of the TUTB Newsletter. Condemning the French system of recognition of occupational diseases as ludicrous, the author concludes that "the risk control argument advanced by French asbestos manufacturers, based on improved prevention in the asbestos industries, has proved particularly lethal in practice."
Mesothelioma in a Community in the North of England by A.T.Edward et al appeared in volume 53 (1996) of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Journal. The conclusion that "no (mesothelioma) cases associated with neighbourhood exposure to asbestos were identified" was challenged by Dr. M. Greenberg who, in a letter published in volume 54 of the journal, reanalyzed the Acre Mill data. Greenberg's calculations show a higher incidence of disease in the occupational group as well as evidence for environmental cases.
Comite Aslestslachtoffers, a group which represents and advises Dutch asbestos victims, was set up in 1995. Campaigners are pressing for the establishment of a national compensation fund for asbestos victims and their families.
Asbestos in the Shipyards: Dust, Disease and Drafting Regulations was the title of the Inaugural Lecture by Professor N. J.Wikeley at the Faculty of Law, University of Southampton on February 4. The process of drafting secondary asbestos legislation, in particular the Shipbuilding and Ship-repairing Regulations, was examined in some detail with a particular focus on the influence of the British asbestos industry. The mutation of clause 70 (c) was cited as a prime example; in the 1950 draft code, this clause specified that an approved respirator be supplied for an operative engaged in "any work which he has to perform in the vicinity of a place where work of a kind [as specified in sections (a) and (b)]... is carried on." Industry pressure was brought to bear initially on restricting the provision of respirators to workers in the "immediate vicinity." By 1957, prominent representatives of the industry were advocating a total withdrawal of clause (c). When a revised draft of the Code was issued in May, 1958, former clause 70(c) had disappeared completely. This development was regarded by a leading asbestos manufacturer as "very satisfactory indeed" as the provision of respirators "would no doubt have caused continual difficulties with other Contractors and with the Shipbuilders and might well have led to a substantial loss of asbestos insulation business."
The British Asbestos Newsletter website is located at: http://www.lkaz.demon.co.uk
The Construction Safety Campaign is coordinating the Ban All Asbestos Parliamentary lobby and rally on March 6 in central London.
Asbestos: A Growing Challenge is the title of a national conference, sponsored by The General Municipal and Boilermakers' Union and Thompsons Solicitors, scheduled for Tuesday, March 18.
Compiled by Laurie Kazan-Allen