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24 Oct 2002 : Column 505—continued

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that many of his constituents, and many of the people whom I dealt with when I handled asbestos claims at the GMB union, were told when they were working with asbestos that it was safe? Many of them are now dying a horrible and cruel death. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) also spoke of a safe type of asbestos.

Mr. Hepburn: I agree with my hon. Friend. We must realise that we cannot save those people who are dying of asbestosis. We can do nothing about the people who will get the illness in years to come because of their past exposure to asbestos. We can do nothing to relieve the stress caused by Chester Street Holdings and the Fairchild judgment. What we can do is reduce, if not eradicate, the risk of people getting asbestosis in the future. That is exactly what the asbestos in the workplace regulations are about. They are commonsense measures. All they say is that an employer must identify where the asbestos is in his workplace so that if any contractor comes to do any sort of work, the contractors and workmen are protected.

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I have heard the arguments about white asbestos. One Opposition Member said that it was no more dangerous than talc. If it is no more dangerous than talc, let him put it under his arms for the next 12 months after he has had a wash. I hope he will not contract the disease from which people are dying a terrible death week in, week out in my constituency.

It does not matter what colour the asbestos is. It does not matter whether it is white, blue or brown. It is a killer. Yes, it is a killer to varying extents, but would we ask a person whether he would rather be run over by a mini or by a 10-ton truck? At the end of the day, the person will die; it is only a question of how long it will take.

I welcome the regulations, which I hope will be introduced sooner rather than later to protect people in the workplace.

6.35 pm

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Having been in the building trade in the area where the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) lives, I know that one of the first things to look for when entering a building is where the asbestos is. If someone finds asbestos, they must do something about it. I saw more building projects held up because asbestos had been found than for any other reason, and they were held up for longer than any other projects. As a result, sub-contractors went bust. That happened many times on Tyneside.

The regulations refer to a duty to

That is fine, if the asbestos can be found.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) mentioned Federal Mogul, which is included in chapter 11. It is in my constituency, and it is a big employer. It may continue to be; we will see what happens in a month's time. I know that the factory has major problems, but I also know that whoever goes in to change things will have a problem with asbestos. It will take a long time to clear the site.

Bridgwater is 100 acres short of industrial land. We desperately need land. If the regulations are introduced and we have to explore every part of every building to make them watertight, building and regeneration will be held up. That applies to other areas as well as mine, especially parts of the north-east, which is still changing from a heavy-industry to a light-industry area.

Another problem is the requirement to keep records of location and condition. XCondition" means condition today. Buildings are intended to have a considerable lifespan. Many factors may change their condition, such as water or air. Will it be necessary to re-regulate every five years because checks have to be made again? How will it be possible to make certain that part of a building has not deteriorated to the extent that it must be removed earlier?

Then there is the risk to workers. Those exploring a building to establish where asbestos is must take samples, which disturbs the asbestos. Someone carrying out such a process for a surveyor's report, through the Institution of Chartered Surveyors or any other organisation, might cause a problem while trying to find out where the asbestos is, and the material might have

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to be removed anyway. I may be putting this in a rather longwinded way. What I mean is that the regulations may result in more problems than positive results.

I do not dispute the fact that we must know where asbestos is, but most buildings are that sort of age. White asbestos in particular dates from a time when there was a massive amount of industrial building, and mostly concrete, tin and asbestos were used for the roofs.

The regulations prescribe a duty to establish where premises are, and their condition, before any maintenance work is begun. How will those going into the building know about its condition? Someone examining lengths of piping covered in asbestos will have to establish whether a percentage, or the whole amount, is damaged, whether it can be re-used and whether it can be left. I do not understand how the regulations will regulate that. It must be in the interests of specialist firms to have the stuff pulled out if any of it is not in good condition before rebuilding starts.

If such matters are not addressed, the regulations may be unenforceable. As the Minister knows, there are one or two cowboys in the building industry. We do not want to create a problem because they are looking for ways of getting around the rules.

6.39 pm

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): I welcome the regulations, which should have been implemented many years ago. I also very much welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), who treated the issues under discussion with the seriousness that they deserve. They are a serious concern in our constituencies.

Clydebank in my constituency has had the highest rate of asbestos deaths in the country for many years because of the shipbuilding and ship repairing industry and Turners asbestos factory. These are serious matters. People have died because of the material and the regulations seek to prevent people from dying in future. Anyone who turns this place into a public school debating chamber in which we make party political points when deaths are involved is not doing anyone a service.

We all anticipated that the main objection would be made in terms of white asbestos. In such circumstances, we can only look at what scientists have said. Asbestos is one of the most investigated materials ever and it is very difficult to investigate whether something causes disease over a period of 30, 40 or 50 years. In 1998, the World Health Organisation concluded that white asbestos caused asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, so it is clear that this is not only about mesothelioma. Many diseases, including lung cancer, are affected by asbestos. In 2002, the United Nations ruled that all forms of asbestos should be added to an international list of chemicals subject to trade controls. The international chemical review committee said that such controls were another big step towards eliminating the risks associated with asbestos. A prestigious scientific body concerned with occupational health, the Collegium Ramazzini, called for an international ban on all mining and use of asbestos, including chrysotile, and concluded that it causes cancer.

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The International Programme on Chemical Safety, which is sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation, concluded that exposure to chrysotile posed increased risks for asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The French medical research council established that all asbestos fibres are carcinogenic. The World Trade Organisation, adjudicating on a trade war between France and Canada on the issue, concluded that chrysotile was an established carcinogen and that there was no safe threshold.

Those judgments are not from Select Committees, but from controlling bodies, and they are based on research such as that of Smith and Wright, which says that chrysotile is the main cause of pleural mesotheliomas in humans. Research conducted by Mancuso found that chrysotile is far more hazardous in the induction of mesotheliomas and asbestos cancer risk much higher than was previously thought. The findings of Yano and others show that heavy exposure to white asbestos alone can cause lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma in exposed workers. The conclusion of Chaturvedi and Chaturvedi is that chrysotile asbestos cannot be used without risk.

I am very grateful to Robin Howie, a distinguished Scottish scientist, for writing to me about the issue. He said that the critical study on the effects of chrysotile on health was that initiated in 1966 by the McDonalds and co-workers on Quebec white asbestos miners—people working only with white asbestos. By 1992, those authors had observed 108 deaths from pneumoconiosis, 657 lung cancer deaths and 38 mesothelioma deaths. There were 174 more lung cancer deaths than one would have expected in such a population. Robin Howie tells me that the critical fact is that Canada exports more than 95 per cent. of the chrysotile that it produces. If chrysotile is so safe, why do the Canadians not use more of it?

Many people have pointed out that we should also take into account the evidence heard in courts across the continents. Court after court around the world has concluded that all forms of asbestos have caused thousands of deaths. An article in the Financial Times this week showed that ABB was going down because of asbestos claims. Two hundred and fifty of the largest firms in the world are now approaching the United States Supreme Court because they, in turn, are being killed by asbestos. They have been found guilty over and over again, and white asbestos has been involved in those judgments. If they believed that white asbestos was harmless, surely they would have mounted an intensive collective research project to prove it, so that they could win in court. They have not done so because they could not. Now, they are protesting about the level of damages.

There is very little time left, and I am sorry that I shall be unable to respond to any questions about any of those pieces of research. On white asbestos, I would simply say to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow): XDon't stay in Buckingham. I do not know what the rate of asbestos-related death is there. Come to Clydebank and see what misery and death this substance has caused." The regulations will prevent further deaths, and that is rather more important than the points that the hon. Gentleman was making.

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