EU to cut down asbestos exposure for workers to Dutch level

New EU-rules on asbestos are seen as a victory by members of the European Parliament who have demanded a general overhaul of EU’s asbestos policies.

The occupational exposure limit will be set 10 times lower than today from 0.1 to 0.01 fibres per cm3 without a transition period. After maximum six years the limit will be further decreased to 0.002 fibres per cm3. This is in line with the existing limit in the Netherlands, the lowest in the EU, and close to the limit of 0.001 fibres demanded by Parliament.

“This is a major step forward in the fight against this leading cause of occupational cancer,” MEP and rapporteur Veronique Trillet-Lenoir, (Renew Europe) said, after an agreement had been made with Council Tuesday afternoon.

The Swedish presidency of the Council confirmed a provisional agreement was reached and said a consolidated text will be presented to the member states’ ambassadors for approval.

Backed by trade unions in 2021 MEP Nikolaj Villumsen (the Left) tabled a report demanding a stricter EU-policy on asbestos and got support from all party groups in Parliament. He describes the provisional agreement as a clear victory for the occupational environment.

“This is a broader and more comprehensive reform than the Commission and constructing business had proposed,” he said pointing at three areas where member states’ governments in the Council gave in to the Parliament’s demands, besides the exposure limits:

  • Workers dealing with asbestos will be asked for a certification.
  • Demolishing and building companies will have to be authorized.
  • The new and lowered exposure limits will also apply for outdoor and occasional work, meaning possible loopholes with subcontractors will be closed.

A source close to the negotiations notes that the provincial agreement does not go further than being a directive on occupational protection proposed by the Commission, whereas the Parliament demanded a more holistic approach, but added:

“Within the areas of certification and authorization the parties succeeded in meeting each other halfway and some of the Parliament’s demands have been met”.

Three major fault lines have divided member states’ governments in the Council and the European Parliament throughout the negotiations.

  • The exposure limits for workers. The outcome will by time come closer to the Parliaments demand than the Commission’s and Council’s first position.
  • The demand for an overall asbestos strategy including citizens in general exposed to asbestos at home, in offices, schools, hospitals and other buildings. This is not yet met, but the Commission will in the autumn present a proposal for screening of asbestos in buildings.
  • The numbers: Parliament and Commission have referred to the figures 70-90.000 annual asbestos caused deaths in Europe as shown in a series of articles last year, whereas Council and industry has referred to the number of 22 annual deaths.

The extreme difference – 90 000 or 22 annual deaths – should be understood as two totally different perspectives.

Council, leaning upon a consultancy report has focused on the average timespan of 30-40 years between exposure to asbestos and cancer. This means the number of casualties, be they 70 000 or 90 000, can to a large extent be explained by exposure prior to 2009 when the present level of asbestos fibers was set. Thus, further actions would only cost more than they would benefit the health of workers and citizens.

Parliament and trade unions have argued this reasoning would mean kicking the can down the road, contradicting the aim of the Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and falling short of meeting promises by the Commissions to ensure an asbestos-free Europe. The time to act is now, Parliament has argued.

The demands for a broader perspective have been fueled by the upcoming renovation wave of buildings in Europe. This initiative is caused by the demand of energy savings and the green transition and helped on its way by EU-fundings from the Recovery and Resilience Facility, a major part of a new financing model known as NextGenerationEU.

Claes-Mikael Stahl, Deputy General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, commented on the outcome of the negotiations and its consequences:

“Today’s agreement is an important step forward in ending the scandal of workplace cancer. But the long implementation period means that workers won’t benefit from the safer limit until after much of the work as part of the renovation wave has been completed.”

“That is why it is imperative that member states do not wait until the end of the implementation period and put the lower limit into effect as soon as possible,” he added.

Banned from use since 2005, in some countries since the 1980’ies, asbestos is still there. It’s found in roofs, ceilings, fire walls, behind tiles, around electrical installations, around and in water pipes, in ventilation systems, in car breaks, trains, ships and more.

The microscopic fibers trigger mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other forms of cancer. This makes asbestos the single biggest occupational health hazard globally.

“The EU has the opportunity to defuse the asbestos time bomb once and for all. If it does not seize this chance now, the deadly legacy of asbestos will be passed on to the next generation,” Tony Musu, senior researcher at European Trade Union Institute commented in magazine HesaMag before the provisional agreement was reached.

The agreement between the two EU-legislator is yet to be adopted by Council and Parliament before it can come in force.

The Swedish presidency believes the provisional agreement will be seen as kept within the mandate given by the Council but is cautious about calling the formal adoption by member states’ EU-ambassadors a pure formality. 

The Swedes will now discuss with the upcoming Spanish presidency with the aim to reach a formal approval by Council before summer break. 

Published in EUObserver 29th of June 2023.

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