Focus

Focus Archive

Does EU Legislation on Asbestos Remain Adequate?

April 1998
John Manos

The guest contributor to Focus this month is John Manos.

Angela Eagle, UK Environment Minister, told the UK Parliament last summer that the new government intended to extend the restrictions that currently apply to all forms of asbestos in Britain, but are less stringent for chrysotile (white) fibre, and to introduce a total ban on supply and use of all forms in the UK, including chrysotile. Similar "bans" have been introduced in several European countries in recent years and the minister was faithfully reflecting a gradual increase in support in the EU for replacement of existing restrictions on marketing and use of asbestos products (which are harmonised under directive 76/769) by an EU-wide ban on marketing and use of all forms.

However, while the UK Health and Safety Executive was responding to the Government's enquiries about the feasibility of introducing such a ban, the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Toxicology, Ecotoxicology and the Environment (the responsibility of DGXXIV) produced a report saying that there was still no conclusive evidence of the safety of asbestos substitutes such as man-made mineral fibres. According to the HSE, this means that any new unilateral introduction of further restrictions on marketing and use by a European Member State would be open to legal challenge. As a result, proposals for a UK chrysotile ban could not be included with Health and Safety Commission proposals for tightening the existing UK asbestos (worker protection) regulations which are being published this month.

On the issue of worker protection (as against controls on marketing and use), the UK Government's plans for tightening existing regulations are not similarly constrained by European single market technicalities. In this area the UK/HSE are free to push the European Commission into upgrading the existing EU law also.

Last summer, the European Commission published a Communication (Exposure to asbestos at work: EU legislation remains adequate) which concluded that "existing EU legislation, i.e. the 1983 directive [83/477/EEC], combined with the carcinogens directive 90/394, remains adequate and does not need to be changed, unless it is decided, at EU level, to extend the prohibition of the use of asbestos".

For the reason mentioned above, any plans for extension of the existing EU-level restrictions on marketing of asbestos are in abeyance. Nevertheless, the UK presidency is saying that the existing EU worker protection legislation is NOT effective for dealing with present priorities. It needs to be refocused on current hazards, i.e. the hazards that "in situ" asbestos presents for building and construction workers who may be accidentally exposed during maintenance, refurbishment or demolition operations. (The existing 1983 directive, albeit amended and complemented by the carcinogens directive, was drafted for the purpose of controlling exposure in industrial (i.e. "intentional" exposure) situations associated with the shrinking asbestos-using industries.).

The UK presidency is therefore concentrating its efforts on review of the worker protection directive which is on the agenda for this month's social affairs Council meeting scheduled for 7 April.

How feasible is the banning of chrysotile?

At present in the UK, chrysotile (white) asbestos is closely regulated but is still used in some products such as corrugated sheeting, roof tiles and friction linings for some vehicle brakes. The same applies even in countries which have introduced chryostile "bans" - Sweden in the 1982 and France in 1986. Exemptions invariably have to be made for "essential uses".

A Swedish government official, Bertil Remaeus, explained the lessons learned from the Swedish experience at a conference organised by the European Trade Union Technical Bureau for Health and Safety last December. He described the background against which the ban had been introduced: an already rapidly declining import and use of raw asbestos (from 20,000 ton/year in Sweden in the late 1960s, to 2000 ton/year in 1980), a declining incidence of new cases of asbestosis; and a rapidly increasing, delayed incidence of asbestos-related cancers. This was the legacy of the asbestos catastrophe; even in Sweden today, asbestos cancers such as mesothelioma are responsible for more fatalities than occupational accidents.

The Swedish government opted for a ban on all types of fibres so as to avoid scientific debate about the relative hazards of the different forms and to pre-empt the commercial exploitation of the market for laboratory analytical services that inevitably develops when different controls apply to different fibre types.

In support of a ban, asbestos substitutes, such as man-made mineral fibres, were regulated to pre-empt arguments about their safety. And the labour inspectorate and trade unions were "activated" to be aware of the risk of commercial exploitation of public fear of asbestos: the creation of a market for unnecessary encapsulation and removal services, for example (encouraging inappropriate high-risk removal operations). It had been important, also, that employers should be in agreement with, and committed to, the ban since, "they are the only ones who can check whether asbestos is being used".

Remaeus reported that a significant administrative burden on the labour inspectorate had resulted from the ban, particularly the licensing of work on in-situ asbestos. There had also been relatively heavy administrative input from companies and trade unions. Today, Remaeus said, such a banning measure would be less onerous because of the greater availability of substitutes. In the case of friction materials, for example, Sweden's experience was that less dangerous products are now technically available for every conceivable application. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that exemptions had to be allowed in several areas for technical reasons after the original prohibition was introduced.

(Note: The UK Health and Safety Commission will be issuing a Consultative Document on Asbestos mid April 1998)

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John Manos
European Editor, European Safety Newsletter
Grecofile Publications
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