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Ronnie Sookdheo

Asbestos must be completely banned

(August 1977)

From Militant, No. 368, 12 August 1977, p. 4.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This year will see the publication of the long-awaited report on asbestos by the government-created Advisory Committee on Asbestos. Many of the business and other interests who profit from the use of asbestos, or who are loath to meet the cost of its replacement, are already viewing the Committee’s findings more optimistically than before. They have been encouraged by the interim statement issued in January and, more recently, by the confusion arising from controversial evidence presented to the committee and subsequent legal actions.

The January statement reiterated the existing safety limits of asbestos at work and in the home on the grounds that, as yet, there is “insufficient data relating the prevalence of asbestos-induced disease to the doses of asbestos received to revise the 1969 safety standard.”

The standard referred to was based solely on data provided by a Rochdale asbestos factory on its 290 workforce. The study found in 1968 that only 3% of the men had developed asbestosis. In a smaller group of 80 men exposed to between 3 and 6 fibres per cubic centimetre of air only one had asbestosis. On the basis of this solitary study the government proposed a safety limit of two fibres per cu. cm. for all workers working with asbestos.

It was later learned, however, that the data from which this limit was derived was provided by company sources with no outside confirmation. The method used, moreover, to determine the dust counts were inexact by scientific standards. Re-evaluation of the data showed that by 1972, 26 of the 290 had confirmed asbestosis – almost one in ten!

In addition, there was a sharp increase in lung cancer and a combination of lung and abdominal cancers amongst workers who were exposed to this level of asbestos dust. The asbestos worker who smoked increased his chances of contracting the disease eight-fold.

These findings have now been confirmed by research scientists in America. In fact, one such scientist has estimated that up to 40% of one million Americans who have been exposed to asbestos will die of cancer. This represents the colossal figure of 250,000 deaths! This has been borne out by a US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health report which states that: “Excessive cancer risks have been demonstrated at all fibre concentrations studies to date.” (Our emphasis)

If, as this report says, all concentrations of asbestos dust produce cancer, then it raises serious questions about the continuing use of asbestos at all and not just, as in the present debate, what the safety limit should be.

This makes the latest recommendation of the British Advisory Committee even more extraordinary, upholding, as it does, its previous stance on safety limits and blatantly disregarding the new evidence.

Even more controversial is the evidence being submitted to the Committee by certain scientists which has resulted in a good deal of in-fighting. A report in the July issue of New Scientist indicates the intense controversy now going on:

Evidence given at a recent meeting on asbestos could result in a libel action. Dr. Robert Murray, the ex-medical adviser to the Trades Union Congress, is “seeking legal advice” about a statement made at a public meeting of the Advisory Committee on Asbestos which he believes defamatory. Murray is concerned about allegations made by Alan Dalton of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science [BSSRS], particularly because Murray’s reputation as an independent consultant is at stake.

The contentious allegation is that Dr Murray was paid £20,000 to tell an Irish planning inquiry that asbestos should not be banned, changing previous statements he had made on the issue. The controversial part of Dalton’s statement to the Advisory Committee on Asbestos is: “If you look in some of the unpublished evidence to the committee you’ll find there a safety officer saying that he heard Dr Robert Murray – then the TUC doctor – say that asbestos should be banned. A few weeks ago Dr Robert Murray was saying that asbestos was all right – this was in Cork in Ireland. He was paid £20,000 by the asbestos industry to say that and that may have influenced his decision.”

The planning inquiry was seeking a new site for the dumping of asbestos from a new £4 million plant making brake linings near Cork. Raybestos, Manhatten, the owners of the plant, had already been refused permission for one dumping site because of local objections.

Similarly, Dr Richard Dell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, has claimed that an unfortunate misprint in the published proceeding of a conference on asbestos has wrongly given the impression that he was calling for a complete ban of all asbestos when in fact he was only referring to blue asbestos. Professor Dell is head of the DHSS Cancer Epidemiology and Clinical Trials Unit which was responsible for the survey of workers of Rochdale.


There have also been claims that attempts were made to exert pressure on researchers in order to play down their analysis of the high incidence of cancer amongst workers using asbestos. It was implied that such findings would prejudice the good relations between “researchers and the asbestos industry.”

It is for these reasons that workers in the asbestos industry must take note of the current situation and be prepared to make the strongest possible representations at these meetings to reinforce the TUC call for replacement of all asbestos products with safe alternatives. This is particularly important in the face of what certainly looks like an attempted “cover up” operation in relation to this major hazard.

Sweden has already imposed a ban on asbestos. Denmark has followed suit and outlawed asbestos-insulation. In this country two nationalised industries, the Post Office and Electricity Board, have already taken the initiative and banned it.

It is clear that there is no such thing as a “safe limit”. The trade union movement must now be to the fore in calling for a complete ban on the use of asbestos. Alternative jobs must be found for asbestos workers. There should be immediate studies to cost the introduction of alternatives to asbestos and to make sure that the possible substitutes are themselves completely safe to use. We must also demand stringent medical checks and a register of all workers exposed to this hazard, from the do-it-yourself enthusiast to those living near asbestos plants.

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