Posted on May 24, 2019
This summer will bring a new wave of MEPs to the European Parliament and there is a public health risk to Europeans that deserves their full attention.
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, (pictured right) 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 was difficult for the EU Today team to understand how asbestos was essentially replaced by another material that was just as deadly, and in many ways so similar to asbestos. It becomes easier to understand 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 now widespread 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 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.
If these actions are not taken, we will see a repeat of the 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.
Awareness of, and opposition to, Mineral Wool is rapidly growing in the United States. Plans for the building of a new Rockwell factory directly opposite North Jefferson Elementary School in West Virginia have been met with vigorous protests, which in March of this year saw 21 citizens arrested outside the gates of the Danish embassy in Washington D.C.
“We came here because Rockwool is based in Denmark, and we want them to know that our children are as important as their children and to put pressure on them to move away,” said Ruth Hatcher, a 40-year resident of Ranson Va. whose husband and sister were arrested in the blockade. “These children will certainly have health issues, immediate and also in the future, and I don’t think it’s fair,” she said.
The number of deaths attributable to exposure to asbestos in unknown, but MEPs elected this May have a duty to ensure history does not repeat itself with mineral wool.
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