One step forward, two steps back. That’s how it must seem to the many thousands of dismayed mesothelioma victims, asbestos victim support groups and asbestosis lawyers over recent revelations concerning a government minister’s proposal to amend the asbestos regulations.

If carried out, the proposals would see the reintroduction of a distinction to be made between the health risks of breathing in white “ chrysotile” asbestos fibre dust, and the blue and brown fibre types. As a result, white asbestos products such as, cement sheets often found in agricultural buildings, could then be reused instead of removed and safely disposed of under current Control of Asbestos Regulations, 2012 (CAR 2012).

More than 20 farm workers lose their lives every year to mesothelioma, according to latest available figures based on an 8-year survey from the Department of Works and Pensions. The agricultural industry also suffers the 4th highest rate for personal injury caused by diseases – Labour Force Survey (Health and Safety Executive Annual Report, 2014/15).

Attitudes to chrysotile will be reversed

Fears that years of work carried out by medical research and the accompanying fight to change official asbestos awareness and attitudes to chrysotile will be reversed in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. The minister, Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe, who originally set out his proposals for legislation change in questions put to the House of Commons in 2010 has just been given the job of negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. There is now a concern that tough EU laws on the use of asbestos, which are due to be passed into UK law via the Repeal Bill, could be amended or simply scrapped if the minister’s proposal is accepted.

Equally alarming is the Brexit minister’s call for “an inquiry into the appropriateness of the health and safety precautions in force in respect of asbestos cement”. As recently as 2015, Mr Baker was mentioned in a report by the Conservative Rural Affairs Group, which repeated his call from 5 years earlier to distinguish between white from blue and brown asbestos.

Myth arose that white asbestos was not as dangerous

The general understanding over the health and safety risks of white asbestos have long been flawed. Medical studies carried out during the 1980s collected historical data from the heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, engineering and construction where men were frequently heavily exposed to asbestos of all types for prolonged periods of time. It was discovered that the rigid needle-like fibre types of brown and blue asbestos would firmly and more permanently embed in the lung lining tissues. It was also observed that the body’s defences could more easily break down the flexible, curly fibres of white asbestos from the tissue linings, and remove a higher number over a shorter period of time.

As a result, white asbestos was allowed to continue being used in insulation products while blue and asbestos types were banned in in 1985. Consequently, a myth arose that assumed white asbestos was not as dangerous compared to the other types. Ever since, whenever white asbestos is discovered at a school, public facility or residential housing, the local authorities issue a statement insisting that the asbestos was either ‘low risk’ or represents no immediate danger to the public.

Two thirds tissue samples contained high levels of white asbestos

Recent laboratory studies carried out in Germany have also discovered that just over two thirds of biopsy tissue samples contained high levels of white asbestos.

In the UK, white asbestos has been confirmed as a Class 1 carcinogenic substance at the Government Office for Science. The department also said that it may not be possible “to determine a threshold level below which exposure could be considered ‘safe’ for human health. The same applies for exposure to chrysotile from cement during removal and disposal activities.” White asbestos was finally banned under a EU directive at the end of 1999 and more than 55 countries around the world have also banned its use.

Latest HSE figures from 2015 show that the number of mesothelioma victims had once again risen to more than 2,540 and there were 467 deaths from asbestosis.