Every year, approximately 88,000 European citizens die as the result of exposure to asbestos. All those families losing loved ones make one thing abundantly clear; this is not an abstract discussion, but an urgent health crisis. We must strengthen our policy response; anything less would be negligence.
To successfully tackle the problem of asbestos in all its complexity, it helps to understand the context. Many Member States had already banned the use of asbestos in the 1990s, and a Europe-wide ban was introduced in 2005.
“We may have passed the first wave of exposure to asbestos, as workers and miners no longer handle raw asbestos directly, and our citizens are no longer buying asbestos-ridden products. Nevertheless, we all continue to work and live in buildings that still contain a lot of asbestos”
Specifically, we prohibited placing asbestos or products containing asbestos on the market throughout the EU. Meanwhile, we also correctly recognised all types of asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma as health hazards.
However, it can take several decades - in some cases more than 40 years - for the symptoms of asbestos exposure to become apparent. This latency means that those affected may only realise that they are much, much later. This latency also partly explains the recent increase of cases.
Yet, some policy makers wrongly point to latency as a reason for not taking any further ambitious legislative action against asbestos. After all, aren’t we just seeing cases from predating the ban?
This reasoning could not be more wrong. The heavy use of asbestos in the previous century, mostly in construction, means that asbestos remains present in many buildings across Europe. We may have passed the first wave of exposure to asbestos, as workers and miners no longer handle raw asbestos directly, and our citizens are no longer buying asbestos-ridden products. Nevertheless, we all continue to work and live in buildings that still contain a great deal of asbestos.
Estimates suggest that currently about 35 percent of the EU’s buildings are over 50 years old. However, our Green Deal and upcoming Renovation wave will push renovation to increase energy efficiency and help attain our climate goals - we are aiming to renovate 35 million buildings by 2030 and even more by 2050.
Consequently, large amounts of asbestos will be disturbed during those renovations. If unsafely removed, this release asbestos dust into the air, which will in turn further increase the number of asbestos cases. In many of the buildings, the initially strong asbestos fibres have deteriorated, which makes it virtually impossible to remove it in a safe way.
Today, asbestos is the primary cause of work-related cancers and has the dreadful potential to affect even more of Europe’s citizens. We must therefore address this potential wave of new exposure. I will outline five priorities for a revision of the European asbestos directive in 2022.
First, the latest scientific medical research and recommendations are extremely clear on the need for stronger thresholds. Therefore, we should urgently revise the outdated limit value of 2009. We should aim to set the lowest value practical to protect workers’ health from risk of asbestos exposure.
Second, asbestos is not just a workers’ problem. It goes far beyond that, as regular citizens and children still face exposure daily. Our current legislation has done very little to remove asbestos from schools, sports halls and other public buildings constructed before the ban. When the asbestos materials age and deteriorate, they put the health of children and citizens at risk. We therefore need to enlarge the scope to ensure removal of asbestos.
Third, there are different approaches towards such asbestos removal plans in Member States. Without harmonisation among EU Member States, there is a risk of asbestos dumping in the EU’s border regions. We need better coordination among Member States on labour inspections and training on the safe removal of asbestos. This should ensure better protection for the millions of workers risking their lives in construction sites.
“Our guiding principle when adopting legislation should not just be a narrow focus on the cost of removal, but also on recognising the enormous cost of leaving asbestos in place”
Fourth, in addition to the human dimension around inadequate health and safety in the workplace, this problem is also detrimental to the EU’s economy. Specifically, problems relating to health and safety in the workplace pose an obstacle to growth and competitiveness, while at the same time, causing a disproportionate increase in social security costs. Our guiding principle when adopting legislation should not just be a narrow focus on the cost of removal, but also on recognising the enormous cost of leaving asbestos in place.
Last, our internal market requires a common approach to supporting those construction companies who follow safe asbestos removal regulations. It is time to get the cheaters - those who cut corners - out of the market and to protect the health of our citizens and workers.
Moreover, the removal of asbestos in houses and public buildings could give an enormous boost to the construction sector in Europe. This will have a positive impact on employment and open opportunities to promote new and additional skills and qualifications to ensure sustainable quality employment and the competitiveness of the sector.
We must not lose momentum and turn our back on the 88,000 European families losing a family member every year. The time has come to rid ourselves of the dark legacy of asbestos once and for all.