Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Message for Professor Bernstein

There is a debate in Thailand about chrysotile asbestos. Asbestos is the general name for a group of fibrous minerals made of long fibrils of magnesium, calcium and silicates. Commercial asbestos is found in two mineral forms, the serpentines (chrysotile or white asbestos) and the amphiboles (crocidolite and amosite, brown and blue asbestos).

Asbestos is useful because it resists heat and chemicals and has high tensile strength. It is used as a reinforcing material in insulation and construction materials like vinyl tiles and cement. All three forms of asbestos cause a serious and potentially fatal scarring of the lungs called asbestosis and a variety of cancers, primarily lung cancer and a deadly cancer of the lining of the lungs and abdomen, mesothelioma. All are equally potent as causes of asbestosis and lung cancer while some evidence suggests chrysotile is somewhat less potent as a cause of mesothelioma, although it is still capable of causing the disease. In any event, when asbestosis and lung cancer are included, there is nothing "safe" about chrysotile asbestos.

You might not know this if you listened to some people, however. The promotion of chrysotile as the "safe asbestos" has been going on for decades but it is discouraging to keep seeing it. The latest version comes from aProfessor David Bernstein, billed as a "Swiss consultant on toxicology":
"We can use chrysotile safely if it is cleverly used," he said.

Bernstein, who is also a member of expert panels for the US Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organisation, said chrysotile was less dangerous than blue or brown asbestos due to its greater fragility and solubility.

"This helps it get out of the human lung easily before causing trouble in the body," he said. (The Nation [Thailand])
To which the only thing I can say is, "complete and total bullshit." Unfortunately there is a market for bullshit in Thailand:
Srichant Uthayopas, director of the Industrial Works Department's Hazardous Substance Control Bureau, said Thailand imported about 200,000 tonnes of asbestos a year, mostly for various kinds of cement products used in construction.

Some is used for auto parts like brakes and clutches, as well as insulators and textiles.

Asbestos made of crocidolite and amosite minerals has been outlawed here since July 2003, but chrysotile is still allowed into the country on prior approval.

"We now import only chrysotile, because our industry needs it for its strength and flexibility, which are required for construction projects," she said.

"A substitute for chrysotile would be costly, and I see no reason to pay more for one. Safety and environmental protection are important, but economics is more so," Srichant said, adding that Malaysia, the Philippines and China also still used chrysotile.
So that's it. Srichant sees no reason to pay more. Safety and environmental protection are important, but economics is more so. You can't get much plainer than that. Or more callous. Maybe the health and safety official in Thailand has never seen someone die of an asbestos related disease. I have, and I have talked to their widows and children.

So I guess there is one more thing I'd like to say to Professor Bernstein and Dr. Srichant: fuck you.