Posted on Oct 09, 2019
The EU has the ambition to bring harmonisation and cohesion to a still widely fragmented European market for green investments, as well as to increase transparency, credibility and usability of sustainable financial tools covering the whole economy.
The European Commission expressed this in an EU Action Plan on Sustainable Finance in 2018. On 18 June, it released three reports of its Technical Expert Group on sustainable finance (TEG) on taxonomy, green bonds standards and climate benchmarks and disclosures. These reports are meant to become the basis for the development of new regulatory frameworks for the financial sector. But is the criteria contained in these reports missing the negative health impacts that the material mineral wool poses, focusing as the reports do only on mineral wool’s predecessor, asbestos?
The report on taxonomy details technical screening criteria for 67 different economic activities, which can be are considered environmentally sustainable for investment purposes, if they make a ‘substantial’ contribution to climate change mitigation objectives across agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, energy, transport, water, waste, and buildings, whilst doing ‘no significant harm’ to other environmental objectives including transitioning to a circular economy and preventing pollution.
Criteria for construction of new buildings, renovation of existing buildings, individual renovation measures and acquisition of buildings highlight the risk posed by asbestos. Criteria for establishing that the activity does no significant harm include:
- “It is ensured that building components and materials do not contain asbestos nor substances of very high concern as identified on the basis of the REACH Regulation which could present problems for recycling/reuse at end-of-life.”
- “The main potential significant harm to the other environmental objectives from the renovation of existing buildings are determined by [the] handling of building components that are likely to contain substances of concern (e.g. asbestos containing materials) and of any hazardous construction and demolition waste arising from the building renovation […] Ensuring the future possibility of reusing and recycling building components and materials through careful selection of components/materials that prioritises recyclable materials and avoids hazardous substances.”
- “Before starting the renovation work, a building survey must be carried out in accordance with national legislation by a competent specialist with training in asbestos surveying and in identification of other materials containing substances of concern.”
- “Any stripping of lagging that contains or is likely to contain asbestos, breaking or mechanical drilling or screwing and/or removal of insulation board, tiles and other asbestos containing materials shall be carried out by appropriately trained personnel, with health monitoring before, during and after the works, in accordance with national legislation.”
Indeed, the harm that asbestos in insulation products does to the health of construction workers and other users and residents has been well-known. For a long time, asbestos was used as an insulation material until it was banned in most countries during the 1990s, a very long time after its health risks were discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century.
However, it is becoming clear that mineral wool, which effectively emerged as the replacement material for asbestos, itself has health risks that are comparable with those of asbestos. Dr. Marjolein Drent, professor of Interstitial Lung Diseases at the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, has stated on the record that: “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.”
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 subsequently underwent further tests. In 2002 mineral wool was declassified as a carcinogen. However, it has now emerged that the actual 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.
Certainly this re-testing should take place. It seems possible that mineral wool could eventually face a ban, similar to that imposed on its cousin, asbestos. In the meanwhile, it seems very clear that the European Union’s criteria, when demanding that ‘no significant harm’ be done, should refer not only to the banned asbestos, but also to its heir - mineral wool - about which comparable health concerns have been raised.
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