An asbestos-free world?

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In March 2013, the European Parliament voted to eradicate asbestos throughout Europe. Recognising the damage caused by exposure to asbestos fibres and highlighting the fact that Poland is the only Member State that has formally adopted an “asbestos-free country” policy, the Parliament is seeking an asbestos-free Europe by 2028. Nigel Bryson reports.

The “own initiative” report (Report on Asbestos-related Occupational Health Threats and Prospects for Abolishing all Existing Asbestos A7-0025/2013) was drafted by European Member of Parliament (MEP) Stephen Hughes, who has campaigned on asbestos — and other health and safety at work issues — for 30 years. His comprehensive report was formally adopted at the European Parliament meeting held on 14 March 2013. The report was accepted with 558 in support and 51 against; it now goes to the European Council and Commission.

As the EU has already banned asbestos ― in 2005 ― and there are asbestos directives in place to protect workers and others who may be exposed to asbestos fibres, the report may not be seen as a priority. However, the European Commission is considering the need for a strategy for health and safety between the years 2014–2020. Hence it is being argued that this strategy should include further action on asbestos.

So what is being proposed?

Eradicate asbestos: deadline 2028

Before considering the key points in the European Parliament’s report, some historical background may be useful.

In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has worked constantly to increase awareness of asbestos. Its use was banned in 1999. However, there are still millions of tonnes of asbestos-containing materials in buildings today. The HSE has emphasised that these asbestos materials need to be managed, and has generally opposed a policy of removing all asbestos materials. It argues that this would be expensive ― there are not sufficient licensed contractors to safely undertake the work — and removal may lead to concentrations of asbestos fibres greater than if the materials were in good condition and effectively managed over time.

In 2000, the EU Senior Labour Inspectors Committee (SLIC) organised an investigation into asbestos, visiting four Member States: France, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Its report was considered at a major conference in Dresden during 2003 hosted by the European Commission, at which a declaration was made on what actions should be taken in the future. Included in the declaration (Dresden Declaration on the Protection of Workers against Asbestos Doc. 2317/03 EN: 2003) was the point that:

“the elimination of the future use of asbestos and the identification and proper management of asbestos currently in place are the most effective means to protect workers from asbestos exposure and to prevent future asbestos-related diseases and deaths”.

In the declaration it was also recommended that the International Labour Organisation (ILO):

“assist Member States by drawing up national action programmes for the management, control and ultimate elimination of asbestos from the working and social environments”.

The declaration concluded with:

“The European Conference on Asbestos 2003 expresses its conviction that the ultimate goal is a worldwide ban on asbestos production and use.”

The management of asbestos and elimination of its future use was therefore recognised and acted upon. The declaration identified procedures to be taken on a global level and called upon the ILO to take action, which included the “ultimate elimination of asbestos from the working and social environments”, though no timescale was given.

At its main session in 2006, the ILO did adopt a resolution on asbestos, which included the policy to “promote the elimination of future use of all forms of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials in all Member States”.

Sixty-two measures

Clearly, there are countries that still use asbestos — chrysotile (white) asbestos — despite the fact that bans are now in place worldwide. The report adopted by the European Parliament is now looking to build upon these previous developments by actually setting out a timescale in which to remove asbestos and ensure that asbestos controls are implemented in all Member States until this is achieved.

The 62 measures identified in the report are set out under the following headings.

  • Screening and registering asbestos: Various measures seek to improve the requirements to locate, register and monitor asbestos, and set out clear protocols to remove asbestos from public buildings.

  • Ensuring qualifications and training: The measures proposed extend minimum training requirements to a range of professionals such as civil engineers and architects, to help ensure control measures are applied in practice. Labour inspectors are also identified as needing associated training, as are doctors.

  • Development of removal programmes: A series of measures is recommended to phase out asbestos, review control measures, improve analysis of asbestos materials and for Member States to develop comprehensive plans to improve the management of asbestos materials.

  • Recognition of asbestos-related diseases: Measures aim to improve the consistency of diagnosing asbestos-related disease, to obtain better and more accurate statistics, and to apply existing reporting requirements across the Member States.

  • Support for asbestos victims groups: The report calls upon the Commission to support victims groups and establish an EU-wide network of such groups to provide support and advice to those suffering from asbestos-related diseases.

  • Strategies for a global ban of asbestos: A series of measures are outlined to help establish action on eradicating asbestos at an international level, including a recommendation that chrysotile is added to the list of substances in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention. Experts have agreed that chrysotile meets the requirements of the Convention and, if added, would need to be labelled as a carcinogen, with controls applied. However, countries producing chrysotile have blocked its inclusion on the list.

The report is very detailed and cannot be considered in full here. However, some of the points below indicate the breadth of the recommended measures.

  • Models are identified for ensuring that all asbestos materials are located and monitored in “existing asbestos in private and public buildings including residential and non-residential housing, land, infrastructure, logistics and piping”.

  • It is recommended that “an impact assessment and cost-benefit analysis” on the safe removal of asbestos “from public buildings and buildings providing services that require regular public access” is conducted by 2028.

  • Member States should support public asbestos registers to ensure employers and workers have sufficient information to apply controls that already exist in European law. This would include all the buildings associated with the EU.

  • Asbestos materials should be treated so the fibres are made inert, and the establishment of such treatment centres promoted throughout Europe. This would be done in conjunction with the phasing out of burying such waste in landfill sites.

  • Member States should phase out asbestos “in the shortest possible time frame”.

  • It is proposed that the Phase Contrast Optical Microscopy (PCOM) method is replaced with the Accuracy of Transmission Electron Microscopy (ATEM) for analysing asbestos fibres.

  • A co-ordinated strategy on asbestos in the upcoming Community Strategy for Health and Safety 2014–20 is included.

It is the last point that is probably the most significant. All the actions recommended in the report are unlikely to be adopted. However, the large majority by which the European Parliament has adopted the report means it is likely to be considered within the context of a new strategy.

The fact that the report highlights that, despite existing action, so much remains to be done, may shape how the EU deals with asbestos in the future. It also continues to put pressure on the ILO as to when will it secure its “ultimate” aim of eradicating asbestos from our living space.

Last reviewed 4 June 2013