European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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The European Commission decides to prolong the use of asbestos in certain sectors

On 22 June 2009, the Commission adopted a regulation that amends Annex XVII of the REACH Regulation on chemical substances. One provision concerns asbestos. The Commission maintains the possibility of using diaphragms containing asbestos in existing electrolysis installations. This derogation concerns six chemical sector plants in Germany, Poland, Sweden and Bulgaria.

It is not limited in time in spite of the fact that asbestos-free alternatives exist and are used by other firms. The revised Annex XVII also contains a new provision that authorises the placing on the market of articles containing asbestos under rules that could vary from one country to the next. The only condition laid down is that such articles must have been "installed and/or in service" before 1 January 2005. Such a clause could encourage the creation of a market for used asbestos-containing articles.

The derogation for the chemical industry was granted as the result of a lobbying campaign by the multinationals Dow Chemical and Solvay, which obtained support from DG Enterprise and different governments. It was prepared in a document of July 2007 by DG Enterprise that echoes the arguments of the firms concerned, without providing the slightest critical analysis.

Several Member States – France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain – opposed this initiative by DG Enterprise. The European Trade Union Confederation also intervened to object to the derogations. The Commission was backed by Germany, the United Kingdom and Poland. In the end it managed to rally the support of a majority of Member States. The opposition of the European Trade Union Confederation and of certain Member States failed to neutralise the action of the pro-asbestos lobby, however, the Commission was obliged to amend its initial proposal and to make certain concessions. In particular, it agreed to draw up documentation on a prohibition within the framework of REACH. No specific deadline is set for the end of the derogations.

The European Parliament reacted in a resolution adopted on 4 May 2009. The resolution is a compromise by the different political groups. It nevertheless stresses that the Commission must define a strategy for the prohibition of all forms of asbestos and all use of asbestos fibres by 2015, including with respect to the export of waste.

Vigilance is imperative on this issue. As early as 1999, the Commission had agreed to put an end to derogations for asbestos by 1 January 2008. The manoeuvring by DG Enterprise allowed it to postpone that deadline. The new European Parliament will have to keep a close eye on this issue to thwart any further stalling tactics.

The ongoing import of diaphragms containing asbestos is a flagrant contradiction of the European Union's commitment to a global asbestos ban. It is incoherent to ask other countries to halt their exports of asbestos while continuing to import asbestos fibres or articles containing asbestos fibres.