Campus asbestos row goes to court

November 29, 1996

A fierce row over asbestos risk assessment and academic responsibility has broken out between Paris's Jussieu University campus anti-asbestos committee and members of the Academy of Medicine and the national medical research institute INSERM.

The row is taking place against a background of pending legal warfare after the anti-asbestos committee filed a suit over an Academy of Medicine report. It alleges the report purveys false information and minimises risks.

Michel Parigot, who chairs the anti-asbestos committee, said: "The academy report has been circulated to firms and there is a real danger that it will be used to avoid strict new safety measures."

Dr Parigot believes the report's findings are linked to the connections with the asbestos industry of its author, Etienne Fournier.

Professor Fournier, a toxicologist, acknowledges that he worked for several years for a consultancy firm used by the asbestos industry but insists his stance is objective.

"To be a consultant is not necessarily to be a defender; they bought my work, they didn't buy me," he said. "A lot of nonsense is said about the risks of asbestos and as a professor I cannot let it go by."

The crux of the polemic is the level of risk. Professor Fournier refutes calculations used in another asbestos study by INSERM, which led to the French ban on asbestos last summer.

Paul Janiaud of INSERM, convener of the working party, said: "Our working party reviewed 1,300 papers and 28 major reports from all over the world in order to make its assessment. The academy report is based above all on one expert opinion and a great deal of individual assessment - that is the main difference between them."

Three members of the INSERM working party were also initially involved with the academy study but withdrew their signatures once it was published.

They claim they were asked for their views by Professor Fournier over the telephone but did not see his report before it was released.

The evidence that warnings were ignored for decades appears overwhelming. In 1974, Jussieu researchers first warned of the risks on the campus and a union asbestos watchdog group was set up. In 1975, an expert's report advised against letting students and staff work in such unsafe conditions. The following year, two external groups of experts advised that the level of asbestos particles was "unacceptable".

Some safety work was begun in 1978 but funds dried up in 1980. The issue lay dormant for 14 years, while a joint government-industry body on which Professor Fournier sat for several years, gave out generally reassuring accounts on the link between asbestos and disease.

The present government has pledged FFr1.2 billion (Pounds 141 million) to undertake the world's biggest asbestos decontamination.

However, campaigners at Jussieu who lobbied for the complete renovation of the campus, which is shared by Paris-VI and Paris-VII, have been thrown into disarray by the decision of Paris-VII to press for removal to another site.

The university's board of governors voted last week to move to a site on the Left Bank of the Seine. The education ministry is thought to favour the plan, which would involve moving 28,000 students and 2,000 academic staff, but physics and maths staff oppose it.

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