Workers and homeowners deserve protection from mineral wool health risks

The European Parliamentary elections draw closer and there is an issue that voters and candidates should be paying close attention to for the next Parliament.  In June 2018, EU Today published a report detailing the health risks associated with Man-made Vitreous Fibres (MMVF), or mineral wool, as it is more commonly known.  The time has come for those serious concerns to be converted into action.  Policymakers need to take concrete steps to protect construction workers and home owners from the health hazards posed by mineral wool.

Mineral wool, which is also often referred to by one of the leading brand names, “Rockwool”, became more widely used after the ban of asbestos in 1999.  However, it turns out that mineral wool is just as much of a health hazard as asbestos.  Leading lung health expert, Dr Marjoleine Drent, has summed up the risk: “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.  

The point is that these substances are harmful, but people do not realise it sufficiently, and that is something we have to worry about. It is too easily accepted that ‘we have a replacement for asbestos’. But the replacement may not be as good as we thought it was at the beginning, there is insufficient attention given to this fact.”

At first glance it is baffling as to how asbestos was essentially replaced by another material that was just as deadly, and in many ways so similar to asbestos.  It becomes less baffling once the testing process is examined.  Mineral wool was 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 mineral wool industry then altered the composition of their product, which then underwent further tests. In 2002 mineral wool was declassified as a carcinogen.  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 calls for the European Chemicals Agency (ECA), based in Helsinki, to carry out retesting on the product as sold. 

It is clear that prospective MEPs and other policymakers should be focusing on this issue and making clear that they plan to start protecting European construction workers and homeowners.  

There are three very obvious steps that must be taken.  The first action is the re-testing of the product. There is evidence of the carcinogenic hazards of mineral wool, as attested by the WHO and IARC classification in 1988. The subsequent declassification in 2002 was based on tests carried out on products that did not accurately represent mineral wool as they are used commercially and by consumers. There is therefore a clear and urgent need for retesting these products as they are used in practice.

The second action required is health and safety legislation. Unlike on building sites, for example, there is currently no legal requirement for employers to enforce rules on the use of protective clothing by employees. There is also anecdotal evidence that workers in the construction industry are not adequately informed about the potential health hazards of mineral wool. There is a clear and urgent need for these shortcomings to be addressed, possibly in the form of EU legislation.

The third action is product labelling.  Consumer goods such as alcohol and tobacco are currently subject to strict requirements to inform the public about potential health risks on their product labels. There is a strong argument for mineral wool, whether sold through the trade, or to consumers, to carry similar warnings, displayed prominently on all packaging.

Failure to take these actions essentially amounts to a conscious repeat of the tragic history of asbestos.  Although asbestos was found to be a danger to health back in 1900 at Charing Cross Hospital in the UK, it took until 1999 – almost a century – for appropriate action to be taken.  At first glance it is baffling as to how asbestos was essentially replaced by another material that was just as deadly, and in many ways so similar to asbestos.

The MEPs elected this May have a duty to ensure history does not repeat itself with mineral wool.

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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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