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

The EU’s Health and Safety at Work Week took place between 22-26 October. However, one serious concern that has yet to receive the attention it warrants, despite mounting evidence and growing concern within the industry, is that of the serious health risks associated with Man-Made Vitreous Fibres (MMVF), more commonly known as ‘Rockwool’ ‘Stone Wool’, ‘Glass Wool’, or ‘Mineral Wool’ writes Gary Cartwright.

This is the product that many of us use to insulate our homes. But how many people - homeowners, or those who work in the construction industry and who have to install and remove Mineral Wool - appreciate just how dangerous this product is?

Dr. Marjolein Drent, professor of interstitial lung diseases (ild) at the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology of the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML), Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, has stated “The effects of the fibres of glass wool and stone wool can be compared to those of asbestos. In the past we did not know asbestos was very dangerous. The results of the effects of fibres in glass wool and mineral wool are only being seen right now, so we must deal with it carefully.”

Evidence suggests that Dr. Drent’s concerns are fully justified. MMVF has become the de facto replacement for Asbestos, which, whilst it is difficult to accurately say how many deaths can be attributed to the use of the product, it is estimated that in the region of 100,000 die from exposure annually globally.

Whilst the use of Asbestos is banned in building construction in the EU, and has been since 1999, it now appears that its replacement may be potentially just as deadly.

Originally classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Agency on the Research on Cancer (IARC) as carcinogenic and hazardous to humans.

The MMVF industry then altered the composition of their product, which then underwent further tests. In 2002 was declassified as a carcinogen (although the EU still classifies certain MMVF as a cancer risk). Indeed, Asbestos is a silicate, and MMVF are silicate-based.

However it has now emerged that the product as tested was different from that which is commercially available, in that an important ‘binder’ had been removed.

There are mounting calls for the European Chemicals Agency (ECA), based in Helsinki, to carry out retesting on the product as sold. The MMVF industry is resisting this, unsurprisingly, by questioning the integrity of the evidence, or even by simply denying that it exists at all.

In the meantime, the need for compulsory use of appropriate safety equipment, such as face masks, by construction workers is being mooted as a short term safety fix. There are also safer alternative technologies quietly being developed as the industry realises that the writing may be on the wall for MMVF. 

From the initial identification of Asbestos as a cause of respiratory problems following an autopsy carried out in a London hospital in 1900 to the banning of its use in buildings took 99 years. Will it take as long for the health risks associated with MMVF to be acknowledged and addressed?

image: By CSIRO, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/...

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor of EU Today. 

An experienced journalist and published author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

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