Posted on Feb 24, 2021
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is currently consulting on occupational exposure limits for asbestos. This is to be welcomed, but does also raise the question of how mineral wool, essentially the successor to asbestos, should be handled by the European Union, in terms of potential health risks to workers.
The ECHA conducts its asbestos consultation against the backdrop of the long-awaited Europe's Beating Cancer Plan, which the European Commission presented ahead of World Cancer Day. The Plan describes a new EU approach to prevention, treatment and care of cancer. The Commission recognises that pursuing sustainable cancer prevention is more effective in saving lives than any cure. It also finds that about 40 percent of cancer cases in the EU are preventable. Much of this prevention would be achieved through reducing exposure to hazardous substances, in particular to carcinogens in the workplace. After all, 52 percent of annual occupational deaths in the EU could be attributed to work-related cancers. To this end, the Commission said it plans to present a legislative proposal in 2022 to further reduce worker's exposure to asbestos, subject to the outcome of the ongoing consultation.
There are growing concerns that mineral wool, the de facto replacement for asbestos after that material was banned, could cause similar health risks. Potential health concerns linked to mineral wool are not limited to the level of carcinogenicity. There are also concerns that mineral wool can cause skin and lung abnormalities and that inhalation can lead to pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic disease accompanied by breathlessness that cannot be cured.
Denmark has taken a more proactive approach than the European Union so far towards protecting workers from potential health threats from mineral wool. At the beginning of this year, Denmark applied a new decree on installation and demolition works with insulation materials containing synthetic mineral fibres. The Danish decree relates in principle to “old” mineral wool, meaning insulation installed before 1997, as well as “new” (post-1997) mineral wool. Danish rules now mean that producers must provide instructions for use with information on health risks and safety measures. For both old and new mineral wool, work must be organised and undertaken in such a way that avoids dust exposure for workers. For old mineral wool, there are further regulations, such as the obligation to conduct a workplace assessment to prevent the risk of cancer. Waste containing old mineral wool must in principle be collected, stored and disposed of in suitable closed containers, which must be marked. It does seem that Denmark takes these new measures seriously as failure to comply can mean up to two years in prison.
With Denmark, the home country of one of the world’s most famous mineral wool producers, taking health risks seriously, it has to be hoped that the European Union will take a similar path, protecting the health of construction workers.
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