Inconvenient truths

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics: When 107,000 deaths are not 107,000 deaths.

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“We know as well that there is an estimation of more than 100,000 deaths that can be attributable to exposure to asbestos, all types of asbestos,” says the WHO’s Dr Maria Neira.

“Each year around 107,000 people die from asbestos related cancers, mesothelioma and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lung) as a result of exposure to asbestos,” says leading anti-asbestos lobbyist Karen Kazan Allen.

“There are 107,000 asbestos-related deaths worldwide every year,” says attorney Steven Kazan, the brother of Karen Kazan Allen, who has earned millions of dollars from asbestos-related lawsuits.

The frightening death toll is cited as “evidence” of the need for a total ban on all forms of asbestos.

And yet this oft-repeated figure, parroted by international health officials, blinkered lobbyists and fee-grabbing lawyers alike, is based on pure guesswork.

What the researchers did was take data from countries like the UK and Spain, where several thousand people a year die from historical exposure to blue and brown asbestos, and apply it to the rest of the world.

No matter those other countries, where industry has relied on chysotile – rather than more dangerous amphiboles — show no discernable evidence of a similar toll.

The exponents of a blanket ban merely choose to ignore the experience of these nations, like Russia, India and Thailand, dismissing their evidence, and applying the conveniently damning figures for asbestos-linked disease in a few western nations to everyone else.

The figures for Russia and from Asia are unreliable, they say. The doctors in these countries do not have the training or the equipment to diagnose diseases and link them to exposure to asbestos.

And, they argue, that the affects of workplace exposure to asbestos takes years to come to light, that time is of the essence, and it would be irresponsible to wait until people begin to die.

But all of this is a smokescreen. It hides the reality that the WHO and their activist friends are relying on misleading data, based on unsubstantiated evidence, with the sole aim of justifying a ban on chrysotile.

They bombard their detractors with statistics, attempting to bully those who disagree with them with a tyranny of numbers.

They rely on the fact that few people, including the governments they are strong-arming in introducing bans, will scrutinise the validity and completeness of their data.

The claim of an annual 107,000 global asbestos death toll is based on WHO research led by environmental health expert Marisol Concha-Barrientos.

But those who parrot the Concha-Barrientos findings only draw on selected parts of the report, crucially, ignoring the authors’ specific acknowledgement that there is a difference in risk between chrysotile and amphiboles, like blue and brown asbestos.

The report also echoes the work of a previous research by John Hodgson and Andrew Darnton, of the UK Health and Safety Executive, and this too is absent from the argument of those calling for a global chrysotile ban

Hodgson and Darnton estimated that the risks to workers from high levels of annual exposure to asbestos varied from 400 deaths per 100,000 for those working with blue asbestos, compared to 2 deaths per 100,000 for those using chryotile.

They added that for low-level exposure the danger to chrysotile workers was “probably insignificant”.

However the anti-asbestos lobby and the WHO have studiously avoided mentioning the checks and balances in the research they so heavily rely upon.

In fact, rather than adopting a cautious approach, the campaigners have gradually become increasingly emboldened in their claims surrounding the supposed annual international asbestos death toll.

In 2004 an editorial on asbestos related diseases in the British Medical Journal stated: “In the developed world alone 100,000 alive now will die from it.” But it did not suggest an annual figure.

At an anti-asbestos conference in Germany, well-known activist Jukka Takala, using statistics from Finland, was the first to mention the idea of 100,000 worldwide deaths a year.

He said: “Finland has an estimated 209 lung cancer fatalities caused by asbestos every year and 42 cases of mesothelioma. On average, this means 9.9 cases of lung cancer and 2 cases of mesothelioma per 100,000 workers. If we use these rates and apply them (internationally)…In total, there could be some 100,000 work-related deaths caused by asbestos.

But, he added: “These figures are not recorded cases but estimates.”

Since this conference the 100,000 figure has evolved and, without evidence, become an adopted fact for those calling for an international ban on all forms of asbestos, rather than a mere extrapolation.

Even those, like the WHO’s Dr Neira — forced to concede the figure is an “estimation” — then go on to back a ban on chrysotile, saying: “I think this [evidence] is strong enough to say that it is time to move now to [take] more action related [towards] the elimination of asbestos-related diseases.”

This speculation and extrapolation is doing real damage to the reputation of the WHO.

Lawyers eyeing millions of dollars in fees and companies drooling at the thought of massive profits to be made removing asbestos and producing expensive substitutes have seized on it.

While workers and poor nations are forced into a corner.

When the world should be looking to the WHO for leadership, good sense and arguments based on scientific evidence all it is getting is propaganda.