The inhabitants of ‘Kanaleneiland’, a district of the Dutch city Utrecht, have recently been evacuated in great haste from their apartment buildings by the combined forces of the municipal council and their housing cooperative. Their streets were barricaded by the police. The reason: after renovations to the buildings, traces of blue and brown asbestos had been found. It hit the news coverage like a national disaster. Which was interesting: it showed the nation how proceedings work in such cases. So-called experts delighted the public by explaining about asbestos. Much of it was exasperatingly wrong. Read and weep with me!
Now amongst asbestos victims, The Netherlands is perhaps known for two things. One, for being a very modern, pleasant and civilized country where one might expect a decent knowledge on asbestos. Two, a sizable post-World War II asbestos industry based on huge asbestos imports, which so far has resulted in The Netherlands having one of the highest rates of asbestos victims per capita in the world, possibly the highest for any country without asbestos mining activities. (A fact of which the Dutch themselves are utterly unaware.) Asbestos was banned here in 1993; and that largely put an end to the asbestos industry.
So, imagine.. The municipal council and housing cooperative started by evacuating everybody for their safety and offering them damages for temporary costs, free stays in hotels and temporary housing, children’s entertainment, continual news updates etc. So far, so good. No mention was made of the disturbing fact of asbestos being found after the renovations were done, rather than during an asbestos search before renovations started.
Of course, the inhabitants of Kanaleneiland wondered how high their exposure had been. The asbestos expert of the Utrecht Health Department, Ben Rozemond, estimated this to be ‘slightly above negligible risk levels’ and put their risk of contracting an asbestos disease at one to 7,3 billion. In one words, even though they had been exposed to asbestos for certain in as yet unknown quantities during an unknown period of time, they were far less at risk than the rest of the Dutch population. The Dutch Health Council (‘Gezondheidsraad’) estimates that approx. 1,600 Dutch persons die from asbestos exposure each year, in a national population of 16 million, so according to these statistics each random Dutch man or woman has a chance of approx. one in 160,000 of dying from asbestos. (Personally, I suspect these figures are in reality much higher, as lung cancer is usually not connected to asbestos exposure.)
Scaffolding was put up and secured to holes drilled into the apartment building roofs, in order to facilitate closer inspection of the buildings. This raised the question whether this had not served to release even more asbestos into the environment, as the roofs were supposedly the main source of the discovered asbestos. The municipal council and the building cooperative could have won an Olympic race by the speed with which they denied any presence of asbestos in the roofs. Matters were not improved by the news that every scrap of dangerous asbestos had been removed and all the inhabitants were allowed to return to their apartments. For at this announcement, another asbestos expert asked private permission to inspect an apartment himself; and on doing so immediately found great sheets of entirely exposed asbestos on the walk-through balcony, entirely similarly to the other apartments. So the first inhabitants to return were directed to hotels for the second time.
Next, a national debate started about the possible dangers of asbestos. National journals like Elsevier wrote articles headlined ‘Sleep easy! Unnecessary hysteria: if asbestos were so dangerous, no-one above fifty years of age would be alive today.’ Or in the line of ‘Dear people, asbestos doesn’t cause you to keel over dead’. A chemist called Simon Rozendaal, a well-known name for books, journals and television programmes attempting to be ‘scientific’ and honorary member of the Royal Dutch Chemical Association, went as far as to state: ‘The truth is that asbestos is a minor problem to public health. It does not cause more fatal causalities per year than the flue or passive smoking. Only one particular form of asbestos is dangerous, and that only if it has been inhaled for decades.’ Now surely he could teach the WHO or the ILO a thing or two about asbestos – they have such funny ideas about all types of asbestos being lethal and not having any safe levels of exposure.
Rozendaal also advised the responsible Minister and alderman to have the guts to say ‘Just stay comfortably at home, and we will come and measure the degree of exposure. And should [we] find any asbestos, then the risk is comparable to staying for an evening in a smoky bar.’ All the upheaval would serve only to cause a lot of angst, depressions and heart failure. So now you know: when exposed to asbestos in Holland, there is no need to evacuate the contaminated premises. That only causes you anxiety – and that, my friends, is bad for you!
You may wonder: what about our Yvonne, didn’t she stick her oar in? Yes, I did. Of course I did. I stated the recognized facts about asbestos to the media and applauded the municipal council and building cooperative for erring on the side of caution, while they investigated more closely. I was thanked for my trouble. Not being a familiar TV host or guest, who wants to hear from me about some errant, disturbing opinion?
I wonder: if this, today, is the quality and level of information available to the Dutch, what chance do the poor Indians have? The remarkable thing is that both the Dutch in the past, and the Indians in the near future, are faced with the lethal dangers of asbestos from the Jeffrey Mine, at least in the case of The Netherlands likely the main source of imported asbestos. There, too, I went to a lot of trouble to explain our political responsibility in not allowing a foreign government to cause the same hurt to others, such as Indian workers, as we are experiencing ourselves today. But guess again: disturbing opinions are not welcome.
I can only conclude that the world is a crazy place where soothing inanities, or better yet, silence, about asbestos are preferred to the truth. Sadly, the Dutch ‘Kanaleneiland’ affair illustrates this. But in telling the truth about asbestos and persisting in doing so, lies a great responsibility for public health and the happiness of untold numbers of families. So please, by all means, read this article and spread it around freely. Ban asbestos!
Yvonne Waterman, Sc.D. LL.M., GBAN Charter Member, The Netherlands.