We could be forgiven for thinking that when asbestos was banned, we could breathe a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that the material that has caused so much illness and misery would no longer be present in our homes.
But it is one matter to ban a substance and quite another challenge entirely to get it removed from all the existing buildings where it already is.
It is also essential that the de facto replacement for asbestos, mineral wool or Man-made Vitreous Fibres (MMVF) as the product is also known, be scrutinised, as campaigners fear the health risks of mineral wool are just as worrying as those connected with its predecessor asbestos.
A panel discussion took place recently inside the European Parliament to draw the attention of members of the incoming Environment and Health Committee to the health risks associated with mineral wool.
Campaigners fear there is inadequate public awareness about the possible health hazards of mineral wool, for both workers in the construction industry and also the general public who might be installing, removing or disposing of the insulation product.
Speaking just after the event in the European Parliament, panellist Aurel Laurenţiu Plosceanu from the European Economic and Social Committee and the Rapporteur on ‘Working with Hazardous Substances’ said: “More needs to be done to make more people aware of the potential dangers of mineral wool."
"There is a real risk associated with this material and, like asbestos, people need to be made aware of the possible risks.”
"There is a real risk associated with this material and, like asbestos, people need to be made aware of the possible risks”
Mr Plosceanu called for a range of measures, including an awareness raising campaign, better labelling, more investment in research and safer equipment for people in the construction industry who work with the material.
He said: “The particular problem with this material is that any health problems may not actually appear in someone until long after their exposure to it. With something like lung cancer, which, as with asbestos, is a possible health risk associated with this, unfortunately that could be too late."
"By that stage, treatment may be ineffective.” Mr Plosceanu praised Poland for its action on asbestos.
The Polish authorities have implemented a specific programme and invested sufficient funding in order to address the issue and Mr Plosceanu asserted that this strategy could be an excellent model for Europe in tackling the problems caused by both asbestos and mineral wool.
Gary Cartwright, the Editor of EU Today and the author of a major report on mineral wool, said: “People are often unaware of the dangers and that is one reason why MEPs on the newly formed relevant committees need to do more to bring it all to the attention of the public and the EU institutions.”
Mr Cartwright explained that mineral wool had previously been classified as carcinogenic but that later testing was conducted on the material without its important chemical ‘binder’ ingredient, meaning that the product was not tested as it is sold and that the test results that led to it being later downgraded and incorrectly losing its carcinogenic status.
“More needs to be done to make more people aware of the potential dangers of mineral wool"
Mr Cartwright is in favour of the product being re-tested, this time with the chemical ‘binder’ ingredient included, to make tests properly reflective of mineral wool as it is sold to the construction industry and consumers.
He also spoke of the “harrowing” videos he had seen of those suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, describing how victims were unable to stand or walk and that they could barely speak. He reminded panellists that this condition seemed in some ways “worse than cancer, as it is incurable and you have it for life”.
What is clear is that we cannot dither about mineral wool in the same way we did about asbestos. It took 100 years before legislation was passed to help protect us from asbestos and it simply would not be acceptable for us to delay any further in reviewing the safety standards that apply to mineral wool.
This is particularly important when there is now increased pressure to take Climate Action to improve the energy efficiency and insulation of buildings.