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The Government’s chief scientific advisor has reaffirmed the status of chrysotile (white) asbestos as a Class 1 carcinogenic substance, and has concluded that there is no valid reason to demote it to a less-serious category.
In November last year, Sir John Beddington, head of the Government Office for Science, was approached by Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, to consider whether any evidence exists that would “justify an imminent change to the ‘international scientific consensus on the classification of asbestos’ and so allow ministers to reconsider UK legislation”.
At a meeting of experts, chaired by Sir John, in March – which included representatives from the HSE, Imperial College London, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine – it was agreed that while there is consistent evidence pointing to chrysotile as a cause of lung cancer, more uncertainty exists with regard to causation of mesothelioma, particularly at low levels of exposure.
The experts concurred: “Evidence suggests that the relative risk of getting lung cancer from chrysotile exposure compared to amphibole forms of asbestos (such as brown and blue asbestos) is within one order of magnitude, when compared at the same exposure levels. The relative risk of getting mesothelioma from chrysotile exposure compared to amphibole is within two orders of magnitude, when compared at the same exposure levels.”
Although the experts concluded that chrysotile breaks down in the lung more quickly than amphibole forms of asbestos, they also asserted that chrysotile’s toxicological action is unclear, and pointed to uncertainty about whether the carcinogenicity of asbestos fibres is linked to how long they remain in the lung, or to cumulative exposure over time.
It is not possible, the group argued, “to determine a threshold level below which exposure to ‘pure’ chrysotile could be deemed ‘safe’ for human health. The same applies for exposure to chrysotile from cement during removal and disposal activities.” It also pointed out that there is evidence that mined chrysotile, or products made from chrysotile in the past, have been contaminated with amphibole forms of asbestos.
In a letter to the Work and Pensions Secretary earlier this month, Sir John concluded that there is “no justification for an imminent change to the international scientific consensus on the classification of chrysotile as a Class 1 carcinogen”.
A DWP spokesperson told SHP: “It is clearly important that government policy reflects the latest scientific evidence. We asked Sir John Beddington to examine whether there is any justification for an immediate change to the international scientific consensus on the classification of asbestos, following a number of Parliamentary questions on the subject last year. His view is that there is not, and until this consensus changes the Secretary of State has no plans to amend the [Control of Asbestos] regulations.”
In the run-up to the launch of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, John Bercow MP, then work and pensions minister serving in Iain Duncan Smith’s shadow government, called into question the level of risk posed by white asbestos, and the potential cost to businesses confronted with the need to remove asbestos by using licensed contractors.
In February, the European Commission requested that the UK change provisions exempting some maintenance and repair activities from the application of the EU directive on protection of workers from asbestos.