Mineral Wool: Brexit offers opportunity to protect workers and homeowners from health risks

Brexit offers an opportunity to protect workers and homeowners from the health risks of mineral wool

As the twists and turns of the Brexit saga continue, companies and entire industries are attempting to manage the implications for their operations, based on the various possible scenarios, deal or no-deal, exit in March, exit in May or no exit at all.  Moving away from the rhetoric of the different campaigns and Westminster agendas, there are some pragmatic groups who see a window of opportunity for their own causes when or if the UK leaves the European Union.  

An area that has been drawing particular attention is the ability of the UK to protect its citizens from health risks, specifically the threat to health posed by mineral wool or Man-made Vitreous Fibres (MMVF), a common insulation product that came into favour after the banning of asbestos, a material with which it unfortunately shares similar health risks. 

Dr. Marjolein Drent, professor of Lung Diseases at the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology of the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML), Maastricht University, explained: 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.”

Cosmin Rata, the CEO of ROTEAM, a roofing company, spoke inside the European Parliament about the impact of handling mineral wool upon his own health, as well as his fears for his workforce of forty people.  He described how during the first years of launching his construction business, he came home with red skin every day.  “I thought it was just temporary but now I realise it’s quite dangerous.  I don’t understand why legislation is so good and strong for asbestos but when it comes to mineral wool, we are lucky to get a couple of lines in tiny print on the packaging to warn us of the dangers.  There is no public awareness of the risks of handling this substance.”  Mr Rata went on to explain that it is only more recently, looking at studies on the topic, that he realised the danger levels are comparable to those of asbestos and could have caused respiratory problems: “I was a bit scared because I used it myself and worked with that product for several years and I didn’t know the risks and issues.  We need to be informed of the risks and then we can take into consideration the need to wear protective items such as gloves, eye masks and face masks.  Or we can choose not to use this product at all.  At least with tobacco, we are fully aware of the risks.”

The use of Asbestos is banned in building construction in the European Union, and has been since 1999.  But what has been done by the EU to deal with its similarly hazardous replacement mineral wool?  The answer is very little.   

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

The EU has a responsibility to push for re-testing of mineral wool at the European Chemicals Agency (ECA), based in Helsinki, this time ensuring that the tests are conducted on the material as it is actually sold.  Whilst any re-testing was being conducted, the EU also has a responsibility make compulsory the use of appropriate safety equipment by construction workers handling this substance, such as face masks,. Appropriate and highly visible product labelling of the dangers of mineral wool and how to protect oneself would also have been a measure that the EU could have opted for.

With Brexit comes the opportunity for the UK to take into its own hands the safety of workers and homeowners.  The UK has the opportunity to both press for re-testing of the product as sold and also legislate for compulsory protective gear such as face masks and gloves for those who must handle mineral wool in the course of their work on construction sites, as well as large, printed guidance for homeowners who might handle mineral wool during their DIY home renovations.  Of course, re-testing may confirm the fears of experts that these measures are not enough and that the UK could need to impose a ban similar to that in place for asbestos. 

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James Wilson

James Wilson

James Wilson is a Founding Director of the International Foundation for Better Governance. He is a long term resident of Brussels, has more than 30 years international business experience in public affairs and corporate communications, and is a regular contributor to EU Today.

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