European Commissions Asbestos Action Plan under Attack
On September 28, 2022, the European Commission released long-awaited protocols to address the ongoing asbestos epidemic amongst the 27 Member States of the European Union (EU).1 In 2019, there were 70,000 asbestos deaths in the EU; each one was avoidable.2 The Commissions comprehensive approach to better protect people and the environment from asbestos and ensure an asbestos-free future, included a package of measures to improve communication, medical treatment and the removal/disposal of toxic waste and significantly lower the occupational exposure limit to asbestos.
The contents of the Commissions program seemed to generate as much negative as positive coverage with groups representing workers and labor federations condemning the Commissions prioritization of commercial interests over the lives of workers.3 In October 2021, the European Parliament had voted for a new asbestos occupational exposure limit of 0.001 f/cm³ however, the Commissions 2022 proposal will only impose a limit of 0.01 f/cm³. The new level would be significantly higher than the 0.002 f/cm³ limit currently in place in the EU member states of Denmark, France and Germany.
Condemning the Commissions failure to act in the best interests of workers, European Trade Union Confederation Deputy General Secretary Claes-Mikael Stahl said:
European limits on asbestos exposure are dangerously high and put thousands of workers, particularly those in construction, at risk of developing cancer every year. The Commissions commitment to reviewing these limits could help save many lives.
Unfortunately, the Commission have sided with business lobbyists over science in proposing a limit which would still leave many workers exposed to asbestos and at risk of developing cancer. Peoples lives should always come before profit the one-off cost in finding and safely removing asbestos is small when compared with the annual cost to public health services of treating people with asbestos-related cancer.4
Echoing his colleagues comments, Tom Deleu, General Secretary of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers, said:
There are 35 million buildings with asbestos buildings that will be renovated or demolished by workers in the context of the Renovation Wave and the European Green Deal. There is no safe exposure limit to protect workers completely from asbestos. We cannot turn our backs on construction workers and other professions, who are regularly exposed to asbestos.
Outrage over the Commissions watering down of the protections promised has been expressed not just by representatives of construction and renovation workers. Firefighters and waste operatives have also been incensed, saying the Commissions plan leaves them exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos.5 Mikael Svanberg, an official of the firefighters section of the Swedish municipal workers union, called the Commissions proposal shameful: I have colleagues that have died of cancer and a lot of friends also in Europe that are suffering ... [from] breathing problems, heart problems."
Danish Member of the European Parliament Nikolaj Villumsen, who was the rapporteur on the 2021 European Parliament report: Protecting workers from asbestos,6 condemned the Commission's proposed limit value as completely nuts. According to Villumsen setting the limit value so high is gambling with the lives and health of construction workers and craftsmen. The General Secretary of The European Federation of Public Service Unions Jan Willem Goudriaan agreed. We need, Goudriann said that the European Commission takes health and safety of workers more seriously Firefighters and waste workers were expecting a more ambitious European Commission proposal.
October 10, 2022
1 European Commission. Press Release. Commission acts to better protect people from asbestos and ensure an asbestos-free future. September 28, 2022.
Questions and Answers: Towards an asbestos-free future. September 28, 2022.
2 As much as 78% of occupational cancers recognized in the Member States are due to asbestos exposures. Researchers commissioned by the European Parliament concluded that without significant action, the annual asbestos death toll could reach 120,000 by 2029.
3 Some of the less critical articles were:
European Commission proposes much tougher asbestos exposure standard. September 28, 2022.
Radisson, L. Amiante: la Commission européenne présente une stratégie globale [Asbestos: the European Commission presents a global strategy]. September 29, 2022.
Suraj, A. Leterna lotta Ue contro lamianto [The eternal EU fight against asbestos]. October 4, 2022.
4 European Trade Union Confederation. Press Release. New EU asbestos limit still leaves workers lives at risk. September 28, 2022.
5 Cater, L. Labor unions slam shameful Commission revision of asbestos rules. September 28, 2022.
6 European Parliament. Texts Adopted. 20 October, 2021-Strasbourg. Protecting workers from asbestos.