Posted on May 04, 2020
Already in December, before the COVID-19 crisis, the European Commission had said in its European Green Deal that "to address the twin challenge of energy efficiency and affordability, the EU and the Member States should engage in a 'renovation wave' of public and private buildings".
The Commission is expected to start this initiative as planned later this year, seeing it as a possible "key element of any post-COVID recovery plan". This follows calls in early April by Pascal Canfin (RE, France), the Chair of the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), in media for renovation schemes to play a central role in a green recovery plan, with European funds to insulate every school in Europe. Such ideas have since received broad support, including by NGOs.
In this context, the European Parliament is working on a resolution on maximising the energy efficiency potential of the EU building stock. The draft report of the responsible Industry Committee of the European Parliament (ITRE) by Rapporteur Ciarán Cuffe (Greens/EFA, Ireland) considers that energy-efficient buildings should be safe and sustainable because "now, more than ever, citizens require and deserve a healthy and safe place to call home." The draft opinion of the ENVI Rapporteur Maria Spyraki (EPP, Greece) suggests that the European Parliament "expresses its concern about the safe handling of insulation materials, given the possible inclusion of dangerous substances in them".
A health concern for construction workers, do-it-yourself homeowners and dwellers alike that the Parliamentarians so far have not specifically addressed is that surrounding the insulation material Manmade Vitreous Fibres (MMVF), more commonly known as Mineral Wool. The material has been the subject of health concerns that include carcinogenicity and lung disease, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
EU Today’s 2018 report explained the fact that after the asbestos industry collapsed due to the danger asbestos posed to human health, mineral wool emerged as a replacement. Mineral wool was classified as a carcinogen until 2002, when a newer version of it was declassified.
The report examines how the tests that led to the declassification were flawed. Tests in 1996 and 2000-2002 were not conducted with mineral wool in the form that it is sold or used by consumers or commercially: those tests were carried out with the binder or oil removed, giving misleading results regarding carcinogenicity.
An event inside the European Parliament highlighted the risks to workers and homeowners. A participant at the discussion, Aurel Laurenţiu Plosceanu from the European Economic and Social Committee and the Rapporteur on ‘Working with Hazardous Substances’ said: “More needs to be done to make more people aware of the potential dangers of mineral wool. There is a real risk associated with this material and, like asbestos, people need to be made aware of the possible risks.”
Mr Plosceanu called for a range of measures, including an awareness raising campaign, better labelling, more investment in research and safer equipment for people in the construction industry who work with the material. He said: “The particular problem with this material is that any health problems may not actually appear in someone until long after their exposure to it. With something like lung cancer, which, as with asbestos, is a possible health risk associated with this, unfortunately that could be too late.
"By that stage, treatment may be ineffective. Problems can possibly start if the material is touched or the fibres get into the air and are inhaled. The risks apply to both workers in the building trade and also inhabitants and office workers who may also be exposed to it.”
At a time when insulation of homes and workplaces are high on the political agenda, it is believed the European Union needs to take a much closer look at one of the common insulation products, mineral wool. Of course we need more and better insulation given the challenges of climate change and high energy prices. But it must be ensured that what we use in our homes and business - which workers or do-it-yourself enthusiasts have to produce, install, remove and dispose of - is safe. This must be an integral part of the European Union’s policy as it looks to maximise the energy efficiency of its building stock.
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