Michael Lees slaps down the Sunday Telegraph over its latest claims on asbestos
For the past six years, the Sunday Telegraph’s Christopher Booker has been trying to convince the world that white asbestos is harmless, regularly parroting the industry’s mantra that the material poses ‘no measurable risk to health’.
In his latest article – his 41st on the subject by my count – Booker repeats a number of the false claims he has made in previous pieces, and accuses the BBC of “moral corruption” for giving coverage to the Health and Safety Executive’s latest campaign to raise awareness of asbestos hazards among those most at risk. According to Booker:
It was telling that when Radio 4’s Today was promoting the HSE’s latest fad last week, it should have used Michael Lees, a veteran anti-asbestos campaigner, whose teacher wife died of mesothelioma, to support the claim that ever more teachers are dying from exposure to asbestos in schools.
Yet when the HSE had earlier investigated Mr Lees’s claims it found that they were “not borne out by the facts”. The mortality rate for female teachers was “in line with the average for the whole of the female population”.
Booker had previously described Mr Lees’ effort to raise awareness of the risk to teachers from asbestos in schools as “The bizarre death-by-drawing-pin scare”.
The Sunday Telegraph usually refuses to publish letters to the editor criticising Booker’s bogus claims, but it has recently begun allowing readers to comment on the online versions of his articles. His latest attack has now drawn this response from Michael Lees himself:
Christopher Booker has made statements about asbestos that are either incorrect or misleading as he has failed to understand, or has chosen to put to one side, the science, statistics and facts. What is of concern is that his statements undermine the good work that is being done by those he criticises.
The deaths from mesothelioma are not as he states calculated on “a complex formula based on no fewer than three arbitrary assumptions,” for they are based on a simple body count. That count shows that the HSE campaign targeted at the building maintenance trades is totally justified. For more than twenty carpenters, electricians and plumbers dying a week from asbestos exposure cannot be described as “the latest scare,” although that is precisely what Mr Booker does. He also equates the BBC report on asbestos in public buildings as being another example of the “moral corruption of the BBC.” He should not judge others by his own standards, for the BBC report was well researched and gave a measured, balanced view of the topic while highlighting the very real dangers from deteriorating and damaged asbestos in buildings. His views about chrysotile are not only incorrect but are contrary to all informed opinion, it also appears that he is unaware that crocidolite has been used, and amosite has been extensively used in the internal structure of schools and hospitals, and therefore as the materials have deteriorated over time they represent a very real and increasing risk to the occupants.
He is as wrong now as he was in his column in April 2006 in which he described my wife’s death as “bizarre.” Not only were his comments distasteful, they were also flawed through lack of the most rudimentary research which in his own words had “taken only seconds to find on the internet.” First he raised the matter of the number of asbestos fibres released from displaying the children’s work by inserting drawing pins in asbestos insulating board. He quoted then, as he has now from a letter sent to me by the HSE Head of Asbestos Policy. If Mr Booker had cared to spend a few seconds longer in his research, he would have discovered that the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee, WATCH, had dismissed the figures quoted by Mr Booker, for WATCH concluded that the realistic worst case exposure of the teacher would be some 16,000 times greater. I wrote to the editor of the Sunday Telegraph giving the reasons why Mr Booker’s statements were incorrect, however my letter was not published.
The second issue raised in 2006 and repeated in Booker’s latest column concerns the number of teachers dying from mesothelioma. He has again failed to carry out more than the most superficial research. I would have hoped that, as he makes very public statements based on statistics, he understands Proportional Mortality Ratios (PMR), and that for the period between 1980 and 2000 the PMR of 100 amongst female school teachers shows that their deaths from mesothelioma are three times higher than one would expect in a profession where there should be little or no asbestos exposure. As the HSE Statistics Branch stated in connection with school teachers’ deaths “Even if the proportion of mesothelioma deaths amongst teachers was in line with the proportion of females that are teachers one could still draw the conclusion that there are too many deaths among a group which are supposed to have had very little asbestos exposure.” Over the years the numbers of school teachers dying from mesothelioma has been steadily increasing with 15 dying in the period 1980 to 1985 with the latest statistics showing that 64 died in the period 2001 to 2005. In my terms that supports the BBC’s supposition that even more teachers are dying from mesothelioma.
I would therefore suggest that before Mr Booker passes comment in his column, he considers both the facts and the potential damage that his misleading and incorrect statements will cause.