Another Asbestos Debacle?1
Untold numbers of workers may have been exposed to asbestos-contaminated blast cleaning abrasives supplied by the Netherlands-based Eurogrit Company, a subsidiary of the Belgian company Sibelco, which were sold to companies in the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and possibly elsewhere.2 The Eurogrit product (Eurogrit coal-slag abrasive (aluminium silicate); labeled Abrasive ISO 11126 N/CS/G)3 at the center of this unfolding health and commercial catastrophe is used primarily for removing rust and dirt from steel surfaces. According to online reports, following the companys discovery of the presence of asbestos on October 5, 2017,4 the Dutch authorities were notified.5 Initially it had been thought that the repercussions from the contamination would be restricted to a few workers employed by 10 Flemish companies over the last few months. As efforts to assess the damage progressed, the numbers grew; as of now, it is believed that: 140+ companies purchased this product, some of which sold it on to other customers; the contaminated products had been on sale for more than two years;6 and the clean-up necessitated to comply with national legislation preventing human asbestos exposures could cost in excess of €200 million.7
Contaminated Eurogrit products were used at steel works, shipbuilders yards, municipal workshops, thermal power stations, on bridge and railway renovations, ships, factory halls and small containers owned by public sector and private corporations including Tata Steel, Eneco, a major energy supplier, Heerema Marine Contractors, a leading marine contractor for offshore oil and gas installations, for use on high-profile projects like the Koningshaven (De Hef) Bridge, a national monument in Rotterdam, the Willemsbrug (Williams Bridge] (Rotterdam) and the Arsenal tower, Vlissingen, a museum and maritime attraction.8 While the SZW Inspectorate of the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment was provided with a list of Eurogrit customers, this information was not publicly available; the details on the companies and projects listed above was gleaned from online sources. Although it has been stated in multiple reports that the contaminated grit came from Ukraine, a UK expert in transnational shipping patterns believes that the situation is more complex speculating as follows:
Ukraine exports aluminium silicate to India. India crushes, and pulverises the material, and returns it to Ukraine from where it is then sold, and shipped to other countries. It appears to me that, as the Indian ore crushers are known to process chrysotile, afterwards the plant machinery isn't deep cleaned and chrysotile fibres remain in the plant as the aluminium silicate is processed contamination could occur.9
Piecing together a timeline from uploads to the websites of Eurogrit, Sibelco,10 the SZW Inspectorate of the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment11 the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV)12 and other sources it appears that Dutch stakeholders acted promptly to identify and quantify the hazards and inform duty holders and at-risk employees. The speed with which the FNV acted to upload advice for at-risk workers within days of the alert being sounded was impressive.13 The SZW Inspectorate wrote directly to all the companies listed by Eurogrit as having received shipments instructing them not to use the products and giving them two days to respond; 98% of them did so. A product recall was issued by Eurogrit and instructions given regarding disposal:
The product concerned was sold through construction centers, hire companies and our factory in Dordrecht. We request buyers who purchased this product to not use this. Closed packages must be kept closed and open packages should be closed and packed in a plastic garbage bag. You can contact our helpdesk staff: 0800 - 0220 220 or email: email@example.com. They will then inform you about the method of disposal and financial compensation. 14
According to a briefing by the SZW Inspectorate:
If businesses have any stock of unused blasting grit on their premises, then this blasting grit will be removed by Eurogrit, i.e. at locations in the Netherlands Any used blasting grit containing asbestos should be removed from businesses as waste material containing asbestos. This removal must be carried out under strict conditions.
The Inspectorate SZW will be requesting information from a number of businesses about the manner in which used and unused blasting grit has been or will be removed. Moreover, the Inspectorate SZW or the Environmental Agencies will also be carrying out inspections at a number of locations.15
Compared to the well-honed protocols put into action by Dutch stakeholders, the UKs failure to address this matter in a meaningful way, the lack of information on the extent of contamination and the ramifications of potential exposures are unimpressive, to say the least. Weeks after the existence of this problem had emerged, on November 7, 2017, a spokesperson for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) confirmed the:
HSE is investigating following reports of a small number of UK users who may have been supplied with [asbestos] contaminated shot-blasting material. We are also meeting with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on this issue. As the investigation is ongoing we are unable to comment further at this time.16
Additional questions regarding the scale of the potential problem in the UK and the numbers of workers at risk were not answered on the grounds that enquiries were ongoing. While the refusal to engage with the media was one thing, the failure to provide trade unions with information needed to prevent occupational exposures was viewed by union leaders as obstructive and damaging with Dan Shears, GMB National Health, Safety & Environment Director, seriously concerned that the Eurogrit product could:
be in widespread use, particularly offshore in the UK. We trust that HSE and other government departments will investigate not only on-site usage, but also track consignments back through supply chains to identify and understand if, where and how this product entered the UK, and to ensure that all potential users are identified and informed of the potential health risk.
In these circumstances, time is of the essence and the GMB is disappointed that the HSE has not shared details of worksites and companies with the unions and/or at-risk workforces. Given HSE's current focus on occupational lung disease, it is imperative that the Government take all actions necessary to minimise risk and ensure that there are no further imports of asbestos-contaminated materials.17
Allan Graveson, Senior National Secretary of Nautilus International was similarly alarmed:
Nautilus is profoundly concerned over reports that this material is being traded so threatening the lives of workers today and for many years into the future. The lack of action by regulatory authorities, while not surprising, is inexcusable.18
Hugh Robertson, the Senior Policy Officer for Health and Safety at the Trades Union Congress, was also critical: There have, he wrote been a series of examples of where products containing asbestos have been imported into the UK. Clearly the current system of checking materials for dangerous contaminants is not fit for purpose and both customs and trading standards need the resources to keep these potentially deadly products out.19
The disregard of occupational and public health evinced by the UKs paltry and tardy response to the news regarding the use of asbestos-contaminated shot-blasting material could be seen as a harbinger of a future where the protective cloak of European occupational health directives is withdrawn. With slashed budgets and dwindling personnel how the HSE and trading standards will prevent asbestos exposures from taking place and toxic imports from entering the country remains to be seen. It is unlikely that the future will improve on the present. That being the case, there is no foreseeable end to our countrys worst ever occupational epidemic the one caused by exposure to asbestos.
November 21, 2017
[This article first appeared in Issue 105 of the British Asbestos Newsletter (Autumn 2017).]
1 The lack of English language information for this article necessitated reliance on google translations; in some circumstances, the translations did not make sense and the author has used her judgment to interpret them. Apologies for any mistranslations.
2 According to the Eurogrit BV: Company Profile, the company markets its services to construction companies and governmental agencies throughout the Netherlands and internationally.
Un détergent pouvant contenir de l'amiante utilisé dans des entreprises belges [A detergent that could contain asbestos used by Belgian companies].October 13, 2017.
3 Terugroepactie Eurogrit straalmiddel smeltslak (aluminium silicaat) [Recall of Eurogrit coal-slag abrasive (aluminium silicate)].
4 Asbesthoudend straalgrit [Asbestos-containing blasting grit]. November 3, 2017.
5 FNV krijgt inzage in lijst Eurogrit [FNV gets access to Eurogrit list]. October 18, 2017.
6 Fonds Eurogrit-schade afgewezen [Eurogrit damage fund rejected]. November 2, 2017.
TNO: straalgrit bevatte al langer asbest [TNO: asbestos contamination of blasting material longstanding]. November 2, 2017.
Asbest in straalgrit kost onderhoudssector 200 miljoen [Asbestos in blasting material costs maintenance sector 200 million] November 6, 2017.
7 Asbest in schoonmaakzand warmtekrachtcentrale Houten [Asbestos found in cleaning sand at thermal power plant in Houten]. October 7, 2017.
8 Straalmiddel van Eurogrit langer vervuild met asbest [Asbestos contamination of Eurogrit blasting grit longstanding]. November 1, 2017.
9 Email from Bill Lawrence to Laurie Kazan-Allen. November 9, 2017.
10 Inspectie ISZW deelt straalgrit smeltslak in laagste risicoklasse in [SZW inspection rules Eurogrit contamination lowest risk class].
11 Asbesthoudend straalgrit [Asbestos-containing blasting grit]. November 3, 2017.
12 Asbest bij Eurogrit: dit kun je doen [Asbestos at Eurogrit: what to do].
13 Asbest bij Eurogrit: lees hier wat je kunt doe [Asbestos at Eurogrit: read here what you can do]. October 11, 2017.
14 Terugroepactie Eurogrit straalmiddel smeltslak (aluminium silicaat) [Recall of Eurogrit coal-slag abrasive (aluminium silicate)].
15 Inspectorate SZW. Cleaning up contaminated blasting grit permitted under strict conditions. October 31, 2017. (Uploaded November 6, 2017).
16 Email to Laurie Kazan-Allen from HSE media. November 7, 2017.
17 Email to Laurie Kazan-Allen from Dan Shears. November 8, 2017.
18 Email to Laurie Kazan-Allen from Allan Graveson. November 8, 2017.
19 Email to Laurie Kazan-Allen from Hugh Robertson. November 7, 2017.