Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Great Asbestos Hysteria: The BBC, profiteering firms and politicians have exaggerated the dangers

Yesterday saw the launch of yet another scare campaign. As so often before championed by the BBC, it warned us again of the deadly dangers posed by asbestos - this time in Britain's schools.

In the past 30 years, it was claimed on Radio 4's Today programme, 178 teachers have died of asbestos-related diseases - and their numbers are rising all the time. Indeed, according to a new study backed by the teaching unions and cited by the Today programme report, three-quarters of our schools contain asbestos - and almost none of it is being properly 'managed' as the law dictates.

It sounds horrific, as though hundreds of thousands of children and their teachers are being daily put at risk by exposure to a substance as deadly as anthrax. Yet the truth is that this is just the latest in a series of attempts to whip up mass hysteria over the dangers of asbestos in schools, which are, in reality, all but non-existent.

No one would deny that asbestos, which has been used as a heat retardant and binding agent for centuries, can cause serious health problems. The fibres of some types of asbestos have been linked to various forms of cancer. But too often the scare stories are based on fiction, not fact.

A few years ago, for example, much publicity was given to a similar bid to alarm Britain's parents. This one centred on a claim by a Michael Lees, whose teacher wife had supposedly died of an asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma. It claimed that 'death-trap classrooms' were 'riddled with asbestos' and had claimed the lives of no fewer than 147 teachers between 1991 and 2000.

When Mr Lees's claim was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive - the Government agency responsible for enforcing asbestos regulation - however, it found his belief that 'the number of deaths of primary school teachers from mesothelioma was disproportionately high' was 'not borne out by the facts'. The death rate among female teachers, it turned out, was no higher than for the rest of the female working population - and was anyway extremely low.

It is true that most older school buildings contain asbestos products of one kind or another, such as asbestos cement roof slates or ceiling tiles. But almost all of these products contain relatively harmless white asbestos, encapsulated in cement or other materials, from which it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre. The dangers from such products are so vanishingly small - as many scientific studies have shown - that, in the cautious words of a report by the HSE itself, they are 'insignificant'. The risks of their causing lung cancer are 'arguably zero'.

This is why the HSE correctly advises school authorities to leave asbestos products in place and intact wherever they are serving a useful purpose - such as minimising the risk of fire or providing effective roofing.

So why these repeated attempts to whip up people's fears over what all the evidence reveals to be a non- existent problem? Part of the problem is that there is money to be made from fuelling asbestos hysteria. First, licensed asbestos removal contractors can all too often charge exorbitant sums for handling and disposing of this 'deadly' material. Second, a new breed of law firm, which specialises in compensation claims and takes a healthy cut from any successful cases, is keen to tout for custom. They will even pay commissions to trade unions, such as those representing teachers, for any potential 'clients' passed on to them.

And both benefit from a general ignorance of what asbestos really is. The word 'asbestos' is, in fact, a non- scientific term used to cover two very different substances. It is now more than 50 years since the iron silicate minerals known as 'blue' and 'brown' asbestos were discovered to be highly dangerous, killing tens of thousands of people in very unpleasant ways. Their use amounted to one of the nastier public health disasters of the 20th century and was a terrible tragedy for all those who suffered. On the back of this, compensation claims - particularly in America - amounted to many billions of dollars.

But the devil got into the story when this justified concern was then used, by sleight of hand, to demonise a quite different mineral: 'white' asbestos, which is used to make more than 90 per cent of all the asbestos products in the world. For ' white' asbestos, as even the HSE has acknowledged, is 500 times less dangerous than the 'blue' form, because its soft magnesium silicate fibres rapidly dissolve in the human lung. And when it is encapsulated in cement, as it most often is, it is virtually impossible for those fibres to escape and be breathed into the lungs at all.

Shamefully, however, our gullible lawmakers have allowed themselves to be talked into confusing the genuinely dangerous forms of asbestos with those that pose no risk - simply because they share the same general name. And this has paved the way for these two commercial rackets.

The new army of specialist asbestos removal contractors, the only professionals now allowed to handle asbestos, certainly have a vested interest in exaggerating the dangers of products which are, in effect, harmless. As does the ' compensation' industry, which makes a fortune from claims.

No one could be more deserving of sympathy than the genuine-victims of asbestos-related diseases, the vast majority of whom were dockyard workers, electricians and plumbers, exposed to the dangerous forms of asbestos in the years before those risks were properly recognised. But this genuine concern has now been used to whip up unjustified alarm over products which are safe, leaving us to face yet another of those damaging and unnecessary 'scares' of which our society has seen too many in recent years.

And make no mistake: it is costing us a fortune. Indeed, many people are so confused that they can be fooled into imagining that a harmless asbestos roof might somehow pose a lethal danger - and duped into paying through the nose to have it replaced.

Even the once sensible HSE has been drawn into supporting the scare machine, so that it was recently forced by the Advertising Standards Authority to withdraw a series of commercials claiming that mesothelioma is now killing 4,500 people a year. When John Bridle, the whistleblower who brought this successful complaint against the HSE for ludicrously exaggerating its figures, he did so simply by producing the evidence of the HSE's own published statistics, which showed the figure was closer to 2,000 at the very worst.

The contractors, lawyers and the BBC might want to scaremonger with this latest attempt to frighten us into imagining our children are dying from exposure to the roof on a school classroom - but it's time the truth came out. Or we're going to unnecessarily scare an awful lot of people and be left picking up a very large bill.


SOME IVF children have higher risk of infertility, obesity and diabetes

"In terms of absolute numbers this is not very important". It does seem clear, however, that the more risky ICSI procedure is overused

Britain faces an infertility timebomb because a generation of IVF babies may have inherited their parents' inability to conceive, a leading doctor has warned. More than 260,000 children born from IVF treatment in the UK are at greater risk of health problems than naturally conceived youngsters, a conference heard yesterday. And as the generation of IVF children reaches adulthood, many will discover they too are unable to have babies naturally.

IVF pioneer Dr Andre van Steirteghem also accused clinics of putting patients at unnecessary risk by 'overusing' a technique he invented for male infertility more than two decades ago. 'There are genetic causes of infertility that you can pass on,' said Dr Van Steirteghem. 'It means that the next generation may be infertile as well and this is something all clinics should mention to the patients - that if there is a genetic origin that this genetic origin of infertility may be transmitted to the next generation.'

IVF - or in vitro fertilisation - is one of the fastest and most profitable branches of medicine. Last year, the £500million fertility industry used it to produce more than 13,000 babies. Fertility treatment is so common that one child in every primary school year group is thought to have been conceived in a fertility clinic.

But the growth of IVF may have come at a cost to a small, but significant, minority of children. Studies have shown that test-tube babies are slightly more likely to suffer from birth defects. Because so many are twins and triplets, they are also at greater risk of low birth weight, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure later in life. Doctors fear many IVF babies will also inherit the genetic mutations that caused their mother or father's infertility.

Dr Van Steirteghem, of the Brussels Free University Centre for Reproductive Medicine, said most parents accepted the risk that their children could have fertility problems - and that future doctors would be able to treat them. 'Overall these children do well,' he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in San Diego. 'Are there any negative things? Yes. There are a few more problems with these children. In terms of absolute numbers this is not very important.

'If you talk about malformation rate this will go from a background of 3.5 per cent of all births after spontaneous conception to about 4 per cent to 5 per cent and there may be some other problems as well. We have to follow up these children to see what will happen later on. It's important to know.'

The risks of birth defects are higher for babies born using ICSI - or intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection - a treatment for infertile men in which an individual sperm is selected and injected directly into an egg. In Britain, it is used in around 43 per cent of fertility treatment cycles, while the rate in some private clinics is 77 per cent. Dr Van Steirteghem, who invented ICSI in the 1980s, called for clinics to cut down on its use. Some studies have shown it leads to slightly lower pregnancy rates, while it costs twice as much as standard IVF.

There are also concerns ICSI uses sperm that would normally be too unfit to fertilise an egg, increasing the risks of genetic defects in the child. 'When you have a method like conventional IVF which is certainly less invasive than ICSI and that can help couples with female factory infertility where the sperm count is normal, I don't see any reason why ICSI should be used,' he said.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority recommends that ICSI should be used only when there are problems with a man's sperm or when past attempts at IVF have failed.

The doctor's comments came as Dr Carmen Sapienza of Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia showed that dozens of genes involved in growth, metabolism and obesity behaved differently in IVF babies. But he stressed the risks of birth defects was small and that 90 per cent of children in the IVF group were within the normal range of activity of genes. 'If you look at kids born through assisted reproduction, by and large they are just fine,' he said.

Doctors are unsure whether the fertility treatment is to blame for the increase in health problems - or whether they are inherited problems from an infertile parent.

A spokesman for the HFEA said it was important that long term research was carried out into all forms of assisted reproduction so clinicians and patients had the best information available when making decisions about treatment.


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