Calls grow for improved protection from hazardous substances, including mineral wool

A senior Euro parliamentarian has called for better protection to minimise the risk of exposure to potentially dangerous products.

The comments, by Agnes Jongerius, the S&D spokesperson on Social Affairs and Employment, come amid growing concerns about health and safety conditions at work.

The Brussels-based European Trade Union Institutes said that work-related cancers costs between €270 and €610 billion a year in the EU-28.

Mineral wool, a product often used in the construction sector, is among the products which are causing concerns for what is said by some to be its cancer-causing threat.

While not citing any particular product, Dutch deputy Jongerius told this website,  “No worker should become ill from work. So in general, in the case that scientific evidence proves that working with certain materials create high risks of getting cancer, then we cannot stand by and watch.”

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“Either regulation should replace that specific material with a safe substitute or workers deserve proper protection to minimise the risk of exposure,” added the MEP, who is vice chair of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs.

Similar sentiments are voiced in a forthcoming book from the European Trade Union Institute which says occupational cancers are the primary cause of work-related deaths in industrialised societies, with more than 100,000 people losing their lives each year through being exposed to carcinogens in their workplace.

Latest estimates set the share of work-related cancers at 8% of all new cancer cases (6 - 12% for men and 3 - 7% for women). The book will be launched on 4 December in Brussels to coincide with an ETUI conference on Women, Work and Cancer.

“These cancers are morally unacceptable, as they could easily have been avoided through adequate prevention measures”, says Laurent Vogel, senior researcher at the ETUI and co-editor of the book Cancer and work - Understanding occupational cancers and taking action to eliminate them. 

Tony Musu, senior researcher at the ETUI and co-editor of the book, adds, “They are also unfair. Exposure to carcinogens at work are the cause of major social inequalities in health in Europe, as in the rest of the world. Labourers or nurses are much more likely to contract an occupational cancer than engineers or bankers. Indeed, a socio-occupational map can be drawn for the different types of cancer, tracing them back to these social inequalities”.

There has been adverse reaction in Romania where a new plant is being built by Rockwool, a producer of mineral wool.

The controversial insulation product has also proved a problem in other countries.

There was, for example, a public outcry against the building of a Rockwool facility in Ranson, Jefferson County, West Virginia in the United States.

The Board of Education to formally ask Rockwool to halt its construction plans until results from an independent Human Health Risk assessment are received. The Board expressed serious concerns with regard to air quality, pollution and child safety.

According to a report by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the chemicals to potentially be emitted from two 21-story tall smoke stacks include formaldehyde, sulphur-dioxide, lead, carbon monoxide, soot, large and small particulate matter and sulphuric acid.

Local resident Leigh Smith was quoted as saying, “I speak for many when we say that there will be a lot of families moving out if Rockwool moves in.I am not going to have my kids growing up and going to a school 2 miles away from that facility.”

Opponents of the US plant said that in addition to the health and environmental concerns about manufacturing mineral wool, there are also fears over the health impact on those who work with the substance to install and remove it from people’s homes, as well as those who live with it in their homes.

Some experts have claimed that as well as raising fears of cancer, mineral wool is also known to be a significant cause of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a serious long-term illness that reduces lung capacity.

Such concerns are partly echoed by the influential Health and Safety Executive in the UK, a body that oversees the public safety of workers.

A HSE spokesperson told this site, “In the UK, hazardous substances, which includes mineral wool, are subject to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations. COSHH requires employers to carry out a risk assessment to establish the hazards associated with products and processes they are using; and for employers to put processes in place to control those risks.

“COSHH also requires employers to provide information, instruction and training for all employees who use hazardous substances in their work, including the appropriate precautions and actions an employee must take to safeguard both themselves and others in the workplace.

"In addition, if a substance is assigned a workplace exposure limit (WEL), the employer must ensure that any WEL is not exceeded.”

Construction workers are said to be among those particularly at risk from mineral wool because  they install, remove and dispose of it on a regular basis.

Most are unaware of the serious health concerns surrounding mineral wool, or Man-Made Vitreous Fibres (MMVF) as it is also known.

These include carcinogenicity and lung disease, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

The threat is real, says the US National Library of Medicine which, in a report, said, “MMVF insulation products do still cause skin discomfort. Updated knowledge about people’s experiences of work with such products should influence legislation.”

A source at the European Commission said, “We should consider the health and safety of those who have to work with dangerous substances as a routine part of their employment.”

Mineral wool was classified as a carcinogen until 2002, when a newer version of it was declassified but it is now widely accepted that tests that led to the declassification were flawed.

Experts now say that the tests, in 1996 and 2000-2002, were not conducted with mineral wool in the form that it is sold or used by consumers or commercially.

It is argued that mineral wool should be re-tested, this time in the form that it is actually sold and used.

There is an argument that health and safety legislation and product safety labelling is needed for mineral wool.  Construction workers, it is argued, need to fully understand what they are handling and their employers need to understand the health risks to their employees so that they can take action to protect them.

The Mineral Wood Association, however,makes a strong defence of the product and insists that there is no direct link between these disorders and mineral wool.

Read also: Health risks of Mineral Wool "can be compared to those of asbestos", says leading expert

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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