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EU Parliament approves lowering asbestos exposure limit

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The European Parliament on Tuesday (3 October) approved a directive stepping up protections of workers from health risks related to asbestos and improving the early detection of asbestos fibres.

The Parliament adopted the directive, which was already agreed upon by member states under the Swedish presidency in June 2023, with 614 votes in favour, 2 against and 4 abstentions, to lower the occupational exposure limit of asbestos by ten times and set new measurement methods.

Chair of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee, Romanian MEP Dragos Pislaru from Renew group, in the press release following the vote, said: “We have come one step closer to an asbestos-free future”.

“Today’s adoption is part of Veronique Trillet-Lenoir’s great legacy, who fought relentlessly for the health of European citizens,” he added. The rapporteur of the file, French MEP Veronique Trillet-Lenoir, passed away on 9 August 2023, before the final adoption of the Directive.

The Parliament agreed to set the occupational exposure limit to be ten times lower as the limit value will be decreased from 0.1 to 0.01 fibres of asbestos per cubic centimetre (cm3), without a transition period.

Pislaru called this a drastic reduction: “These new rules on asbestos drastically reduce the level of asbestos that workers are exposed to, protecting them from the dangerous carcinogen”.

When it comes to measuring, after a maximum transition period of six years member states will have to switch to more modern and sensitive technology that can detect fibres, namely electron microscopy (EM) – which is more sensitive than the phase-contrast microscopy (PCM) currently used.

This will make it possible to measure thin asbestos fibres, following which member states will have two options: either to measure them, in which case the maximum exposure limit will remain at 0.01 f/cm3, or not to measure them, in which case the maximum exposure limit will be reduced to 0.002 f/cm3.

The directive also includes requirements to protect workers more robustly.

“The new rules also shield workers by providing them with protective clothes and respiratory equipment, protecting those on the frontline of the buildings renovation wave,” Pislaru said.

Additionally, clothing will have to be cleaned safely, there will be a decontamination procedure and high-quality training requirements for workers introduced.

The renovation wave cited by Pislaru is part of the European Green Deal which aims to revamp 35 million inefficient buildings by 2030, offering an opportunity to remove asbestos, at the same time exposing workers to an increased risk of occupational cancers.

Asbestos – a group of six naturally occurring minerals – is harmful because of its thin, microscopic fibres that can be easily inhaled.

This can lead to lung cancer, laryngeal and ovarian cancer, and also mesothelioma. Meanwhile, ingesting water containing such fibres increases the risk of gastric and colorectal cancers.

While a phase-out from asbestos was launched at the EU level in 1983, with a complete ban on all forms of asbestos in place in all member states by 1 January 2005, asbestos fibres are still present in millions of buildings and infrastructures.

Therefore asbestos remains an issue for a number of sectors, such as construction, renovation, and firefighting. It is by far the biggest cause of work-related cancer: 78% of occupational cancers recognised in EU member states are related to asbestos exposure, based on parliament’s press release, killing more than 70,000 people a year in Europe.

Now, the Council must formally endorse the text, before its publication in the EU Official Journal and entry into force.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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