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White Asbestos - Harmless Building Chrysotile Sheeting Unlike the Blue and Brown Variety Used in Insulation

Updated on September 26, 2017
Peter Geekie profile image

A retired pharmaceutical and industrial chemist, author and historian specialising in military events.

White asbestos roofing sheets
White asbestos roofing sheets
Heatproof gaskets made from white asbestos sheet.
Heatproof gaskets made from white asbestos sheet.

Recently the potential implications of Statutory Instrument No. 2373/99 started to become apparent. The cost to the nation is so crippling that we should consider whether this is a necessary measure to protect public health or the greatest and most expensive piece of unnecessary legislation in the history of man.

First a little background: John Prescott announced that S.I. No. 2373/99 was to come into force on 24th November 1999. This banned the importation, supply and use in Great Britain of chrysotile (white asbestos). This implements a European Directive some 5 years ahead of its deadline of 1st January 2005. Theoretically the regulations allow the continued use of products containing chrysotile "until they reach the end of their service life” if they were in use before November 1999. It further bans the supply and use of second-hand asbestos cement products and of boards, tiles and panels which have been painted or covered with paints and textured plasters containing asbestos.

Now many of us will know that the most dangerous forms of asbestos, crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos) have been banned since the mid 1980s. But the question is, does white asbestos present a similar risk and warrant the billions of pounds it will cost to remove it from every home, office, factory, school, farm and other building in the UK ? Current estimates suggest that the cost of removal and disposal will cost every man, woman and child £ 3000, in many cases destroying thousands of buildings in the process.

Chrysotile (white asbestos) is classified by Europe as a category 1 carcinogen (i.e. the severest kind) It may cause mesothelioma (cancer of the lung lining) and asbestosis and has been linked with lung cancer.

You may think – how does this affect me ? The answer is that all of us are likely to have products containing chrysotile. Not only are we faced with the cost to the nation of removal and disposal, but also on a more local level we will be required, at our expense, to remove and dispose, as toxic waste, chrysotile-containing material, that is our personal property.

Applications of chrysotile are:

1. Asbestos cement profiled sheets and slates. (Garage and shed roofs, buildings, fire retardant door panels, ironing boards etc.)

2. Fire resistant spray coatings to walls and ceilings.

3. Friction materials. (Brake linings etc in older vehicles under 5 tonnes)

4. Seals and gaskets. (Including those used in central heating boilers)

5. Textiles and composites. (No longer produced in the UK but still imported. Fire retardant clothing, including everyday items such as oven gloves)

When considering the effect of chrysotile to human health, we need to put the risk factors into perspective. Smoking has definitely been recognised as a complicating factor in asbestos related lung cancer as shown by the following table:

¨ Non-smoker, non-asbestos worker 1

¨ Non-smoker, asbestos worker 5.2

¨ Smoker, non-asbestos worker 10.9

¨ Smoker, asbestos worker 53.2

Because of the diverse uses asbestos has been put to, over the decades, there is a significant background level in the air, water, soil and food. Measurements in tap water, in Canada, for instance, range between 136,000 fibres per litre to 3,870,000 fibres/litre. Using research figures relating to the hazards of exposure of building occupants to asbestos the Ontario Royal Commission on Matters of Health and Safety Arising from the use of Asbestos concluded that “ the inhalation of chrysotile and amosite fibres by building occupants almost never poses a health hazard, save perhaps if particularly elevated exposure is occasioned by the disturbance of asbestos, especially in removal projects”.

It is possible that you may be starting to question the wisdom of wholesale removal of chrysotile, which many consider non-hazardous unless disturbed or damaged. A ban on further use is to be encouraged but the cost and significantly increased health risk to remove a product, which in its undisturbed state, presents little or no health risk, seems foolish. In the early 1980s a single school in San Francisco was stripped of asbestos at a cost of $18 million and out of action for over a year. Two subsequent reports indicated that the students were probably in no danger from asbestos exposure and never would be. However, following the removal, the released asbestos would cause more deaths than if it were left alone.

Sir Richard Doll (demonstrated the link between smoking and lung cancer) of Oxford University and Professor Julian Peto (world authority on asbestos related cancers) of University of London in their 1985 paper “Effects on Health of Exposure to Asbestos” concluded that asbestos in buildings is responsible for “ approximately one death a year” in the whole of Britain.

Many other papers including “Asbestos and other Natural Mineral fibres” by the World Health Organization, reach similar conclusions.

Just to put it in perspective the following is a reprint from “Summary of Symposium on Health Aspects of Exposure to Asbestos in Buildings” by Harvard University Energy and Environmental Policy Center – Aug 1989.

Cause Lifetime risk of

Premature death

(per 100,000)

Smoking (all causes) 21,900

Smoking (cancer only) 8,800

Motor vehicles 1,600

Frequent airline passengers 730

Coal mining accidents 441

Indoor Radon 400

Motor vehicles – pedestrian 290

Living with a smoker 200

Diagnostic X-rays 75

Cycling 75

Drinking water 7

Lightening 3

Hurricanes 3

Asbestos in school buildings 1

As a final point, on 11th September 2001, the World Trade Center fell, 40 floors of which contained asbestos, now swirling around Manhattan. Occupational Safety and Health Admin, City Health officials and, most importantly the Environmental Protection Agency were all conducting air-quality tests. What was the result of the EPA tests ? Were thousands of people to flee the city or jam the hospitals ? No – the message was “asbestos was only harmful if breathed at high levels over a sustained period of time.” When it was pointed out that the tests exceeded the EPA safety levels, the agency hastily explained “these are a stringent standard based on long term exposure and that the public was not at any real risk”

There is much more to the arguments but this final statement seems to sum up the real situation. One needs to ask the question – are there better and more productive ways of spending billions of pounds and placing thousands of people at risk by disturbing a problem that probably does not exist.

© 2012 Peter Geekie


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    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 3 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Dave

      It is like many pieces of legislation where they lump things all with a similar sounding name together.

      There is really no such thing as white asbestos, it is chrysotile a cement like product.

      All products that can produce dust should be avoided if inhalation is possible but for decades it has casually been called white asbestos when in fact there is no asbestos risk.

      There is tremendous amounts of money to be made with "clearing up" schools, agricultural buildings even domestic sheds and garages - all without justification. It's also interesting to note how many politicians and legislators are on the board of directors of the clean up companies.

      kind regards Peter

    • profile image

      Dave 3 years ago

      So why the massive hysteria if unlike the blue and brown is nowhere near as dangerous unless exposed at high levels and over a long period of time! is it because its still called asbestos and assumed lethal no matter what its made of?

      still worried though even though it was a one off for me and at low levels, I have a friend who has backed what you said, he said he worked breaking it up for 7 years with his gramp who also has done similar things for longer but never has had any problems, is it just scaremongering to make business etc spend lots of money to have it removed!!

    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 3 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Dave,

      White asbestos is no more harmful to you than inhaling cement dust. Its not advisable so you should wear a dust mask as like cement it is an irritant.

      kind regards Peter

    • profile image

      Dave 3 years ago

      Hi peter, i recently inadvertantly broke a piece of cement sheet (most likely white asbestos) that was used as a wall covering for some old boiler pipes, as soon as it happened i took it straight out and away from my house and bagged it up, but i have since been fearful that i may have inhaled some, judging by what i have read here and other places is that really only prolonged exposure is harmful? This was a one off,

      but im still concerned but reading what you said about being an irratant at worst has eased my mind slightly... Unfortunately im a bit of a worrier.

    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 4 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Thank you for your comment. It is a common misconception that all three colours are equally dangerous when white asbestos is actually chrysotile which is only an irritant at worst. Obviously all forms of irritant is undesirable and to be avoided but chrysotile does not cause the fatal lung disease.

      kind regards Peter

    • profile image

      Jane 4 years ago

      I always thought all asbestos was harmful I didn't know about the different colors. Why is that.