On Monday 6 February 2023, members of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs of the European Parliament will start discussions on amending the Directive on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to asbestos at work (Trillet-Lenoir Report). With the adoption of the European Green Deal and the renovation wave for Europe, it is expected that 35 million buildings will undergo maintenance, be renovated or otherwise be demolished by 2030. Therefore, between 4.1 and 7.3 million workers in the construction and renovation sector, in waste management and in the firefighting services will be at increased risk of exposure to asbestos in the next decade. That number is expected to increase by 4 per cent a year over the next ten years. Since the harmful health effects of inhaled asbestos fibres and asbestos-related diseases can take up to 40 years to manifest, a fourth wave of asbestos victims is to be expected.

‘The EU has a chance to safely remove, once and for all, this dangerous carcinogen from the European building environment. If the EU does not take the opportunity of the synergy offered by the Green Deal, the renovation wave and the recovery plan for Europe to resolve this issue, the deadly asbestos legacy will be passed on to the next generation of workers, inhabitants and users of buildings,’ said Tony Musu, Senior Researcher for the ETUI who has been following the asbestos dossier for over 20 years.

Asbestos is not a problem of the past

Over 220 million buildings were built in the EU before the total ban on asbestos in 2005 and it is present everywhere. With a lot of migrant, posted, cross-border and self-employed employees, the construction industry and its workers are particularly vulnerable: unable, despite the pressures on them, to ignore the risks of sawing, piercing, drilling, nailing, cutting, knocking or breaking an element that contains asbestos.

By lowering the occupational exposure limit (OEL) value by a factor of ten compared to the one currently in place – from 0.1 fibres/cm³ (or 100 000 fibres/m³) to 0.01 fibres/cm³ – the revised directive is heading in the right direction but it has stopped short in the middle of the road. In view of the latest developments in scientific knowledge and research, France, Germany and the Netherlands have already updated their national OEL on asbestos. In contrast to the current outdated limit, France and Germany now have a national limit of 0.01 fibres/cm³ while the Netherlands has one of 0.002 fibres/cm³.

Serial killer for over a century

Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis and different types of cancers including mesothelioma and lung, laryngeal and ovarian cancers. The risk of contracting these diseases increases with the number of fibres inhaled. In most cases, symptoms develop only after a long latency period of 20-40 years. Manufacturing asbestos, placing it on the market and using it have been banned in the EU since 2005, and much earlier than that in some Member States, but there has still been no decline in deaths from asbestos-related diseases. Today, asbestos kills around 90 000 people from lung cancers and mesothelioma every year in the EU while occupational cancers cost between 270 and 610 billion euros annually, or 1.8 to 4.1 per cent of EU GDP.

Selection of ETUI publications on asbestos

Don’t miss the upcoming summer 2023 issue of HesaMag which will be dedicated to asbestos