The Asbestos Watchdog challenged the adverts, claiming that they were misleading and exaggerated the likelihood of tradesmen developing an asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma.
However, the HSE has countered this argument saying that the figures were calculated by counting the number of male and female death certificates that quoted the disease as the cause of death in 2004-2006 and then estimating and adding on the number of deaths caused by lung cancer directly attributable to asbestos exposure.
The figures have been disputed by the Asbestos Watchdog and the Advertising Standards Agency upheld the complaint, leading to the withdrawal of the adverts. They agreed that the figures that led to the quote were based on estimations and could mislead the public by presenting as definitive figures, rather than estimations, and ruled that the adverts could not appear in their current form.
So a potentially effective advertising campaign has been completely scuppered on the basis of a technicality. Those involved in fighting for compensation for victims of asbestos exposure are dismayed at the message that this affair has sent out, feeling that the challenge is an attempt to try and remove the spotlight from the horrendous body-count asbestos exposure has already accumulated.
The entire decision hinges on the estimation of lung cancer deaths, rather than deaths as a result of the aggressive cancer mesothelioma. The reasoning was that, because lung cancer deaths caused by asbestos were clinically indistinguishable from those caused by other factors such as smoking, the number of deaths was an estimate rather than a definable quantity.
The HSE commissioned research to calculate those estimates, which showed a ratio of one asbestos-related lung cancer death to every mesothelioma death for the period 1980 to 2000. They added that a number of people died from other asbestos-related, non-cancerous diseases every year. Using these figures and the ratio of 1:1, the HSE said it was able to conclude that around 4,000 people died every year from asbestos-related cancer between 2004 and 2006.
The issue here is not how the figures have been arrived at (although perhaps a little more preparation on the part of the HSE would have prevented this situation from arising in the first place). The issue is how this whole affair will damage the efforts of those fighting for compensation for asbestos exposure and whether a vital campaign to bring a heightened state of awareness of the dangers of exposure to the deadly dust has been killed off before it could do any good.
There is fault on both sides - the HSE should have considered how its figures were arrived at and that any hint of 'estimated' figures would be bound to cause problems when it came to justifying such a claim. But there is no doubt in anyone's mind that exposure to asbestos has been and continues to be an ongoing problem, particularly amongst those who work in buildings that still contain asbestos.
Awareness of the dangers has to be continually spotlighted if there is any chance of preventing more unnecessary and painful deaths from asbestos exposure. Perhaps it's time that the HSE and the Asbestos Watchdog combined forces to present an effective, accurate and highly publicised campaign that makes it very clear how deadly exposure to asbestos really is. Asbestos Compensation Claims are expected in the years ahead.