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26 June 2019

Crystalline silica: a serious risk for young workers

At the end of May 2019, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) published the results of its study of the risks associated with crystalline silica for workers.

At the end of May 2019, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) published the results of its study of the risks associated with crystalline silica for workers.

One of the main reasons leading to this study being launched was the concern raised by cases of silicosis linked to the use of artificial stone (quartz + resin) used in the production of kitchen tops and bathroom surfaces. The workers concerned are those cutting the stone, producing it or installing it in private homes, especially when dry-cutting is involved. This silicosis can affect very young workers, whereby the latency period is often much shorter than that currently observed for other forms of silicosis. Silicosis is thus far from being a disease belonging to the past, when thousands of miners throughout Europe were hit by it.

The study shows that some 365 000 workers in France are exposed to inhaling crystalline silica, in particular quartz. Between 23 000 and 30 000 workers are stated to be exposed to levels exceeding the occupational exposure limit (OEL) of 0.1 mg.m-3 currently in force in France, and more than 60 000 to levels exceeding the lowest OEL proposed at international level (0.025 mg.m-3). More than two-thirds of these exposures take place in the construction sector, followed by the manufacture of other non-metallic mineral products, metalworking and extractive industries.

The health impact of such exposures is particularly serious: lung cancer and other non-cancer lung diseases such as silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or tuberculosis. A link can also be observed between these occupational exposures and various autoimmune diseases. ANSES recommends that further studies be conducted on the impact on kidney pathologies.

Crystalline silica was at the heart of the debates over the first phase of the revision of the European directive on carcinogens. The OEL adopted in 2017 is 0.1 mg/m3. According to the ANSES study, this value does not provide sufficient protection, leaving a considerable residual risk. In the US, the ACGIH (American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists) recommends a value four times lower (0.025 mg/m3) for certain types of silica (quartz and cristobalite). The binding US OEL is 0.05 mg/m3, though six US states have set much lower environmental limits to protect their populations against lung disease risks: California, Vermont, New York, Texas, Minnesota and New Jersey.

The European directive has to be transposed into national legislation by 17 January 2020. “If we really want to protect the lives of workers exposed to silica, we need to adopt much more protective OELs than those listed in the directive”, said Laurent Vogel, senior researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI). Don't forget that the European directives on health and safety at work only set down minimum requirements. Any Member State can adopt legislation providing for a better level of protection.

read more : Expertise ANSES (in French)

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