A recent claim that much hysteria has been generated by a deliberate exaggeration and distortion of the realities of asbestos danger in environments like school classrooms, causes deep offence to the many proven asbestosis sufferers fighting long and hard for asbestos compensation. It also does an irresponsible disservice to the asbestos awareness initiatives of organisations like the Health & Safety Executive.

A Radio 4 Today programme recently reported that 178 teachers had died of asbestos-related diseases in the past 30 years with numbers still on the rise. Furthermore, it said that a new study backed by the teaching unions, found three-quarters of our schools contain asbestos – which was not being properly ‘managed’ as legally required.

The reaction in one popular daily newspaper review suggested that the programme was “ 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”.

Although the review did not deny that “ the fibres of some types of asbestos have been linked to various forms of cancer”, it asserted that the so-called „scare stories were based on fiction, not fact‟, and that “most older school buildings … contain relatively harmless white asbestos, encapsulated in cement or other materials, from which it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre”.

This simply is not bourne out by the actual facts on the ground. Much official advice has been that asbestos cement contains „only‟ around 10% of asbestos fibres, and that they are safely „locked in‟. The „locked in‟ argument does not allow for routine maintenance activity, removal and demolition work, damage by fire, and other types of damage. All asbestos mixes require sawing, drilling, transporting and handling. Observations have been made in previous decades of damaged asbestos tiles piled up in corners and against walls, exposed and open to handling.

Further electron microscope evidence shows that asbestos cement products release fibres into the air under normal wear and tear conditions. A 1980 study showed that asbestos in the air within 20 inches of a 17-year-old weathered asbestos cement tile, was ten times higher than the background level found 100 metres from the same wall.

Measurements in offices in Paris with asbestos-reinforced vinyl flooring showed that under normal conditions white asbestos levels were 50 times higher than in the air outside the building. Similarly, new asbestos roof tiles have been found to shed asbestos when it rains.

Furthermore, normal air movement or vibration has been enough to cause significantly increased levels of airborne fibres in buildings. Researchers have even found evidence of fibre release from undisturbed asbestos cement.

It is not only disturbance by humans that leads to peak exposures. At one London school, asbestos boards were gnawed by vermin. There were fibre levels of 0.5 fibres/ml, 50 times the clearance limit and 1,000 times the government’s estimated background level.

The press review also referred to the issue of ‘white’ asbestos, implying that the “dangers from such products are so vanishingly small they are ‘insignificant’” and the risks of their causing lung cancer are ‘arguably zero’.

Although the HSE has acknowledged, „white asbestos‟ is 500 times less dangerous than the ‘blue’ form, because its soft magnesium silicate fibres rapidly dissolve in the human lung, a 1985 Health and Safety Commission report states, “The four types of asbestos that have been used in industry to any material extent, the common chrysotile with its curly fibres and the three amphiboles (crocidolite, amosite and anthophyllite) with their straight ones, all produce pulmonary fibrosis, cancer of the lung, and mesotheliomas of the pleura and peritoneum in animal experiments.”

In animal experiments both white and the less common types of asbestos produce the deadly diseases seen in man. They go on to conclude the animal evidence is overwhelming that, “all types produce the specified diseases with relative ease.”

What is completely clear is that white asbestos produces lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. While it might be true that white asbestos does not produce as many mesotheliomas as blue and brown asbestos and does not produce them in the stomach lining (the peritoneum), it is irrelevant because most white asbestos is contaminated with other potentially more dangerous types, especially tremolite, which cannot be separated.

The press report cites the evidence of the HSE’s own published statistics, which showed the figure for mesothelioma deaths was closer to 2,000 per year, and thus lower than the previously published figure. Although 2,000 is still 2,000 too many, this is more likely to be a reflection of much asbestos legislation being introduced in recent years, the continuous awareness campaigns and legal actions being conducted to alter employer attitudes to workforce safety.

Their work will only be done, when this figure reduces to zero, not likely anytime soon as the figures for claims are predicted to gather pace in 2015 and carry on until 2035 and beyond with the number of future claims ranging from 80,000 to 200,000 or more. Deaths from mesothelioma, could account for more than half of claims.