Asbestos: EU: 1, UK: 0
On June 28, 2022, the European Environment Agency uploaded a web report entitled: Beating cancer the role of Europes environment.1 The text laid out a multi-pronged European Union (EU) strategy for reducing the cost of deadly exposures to toxins such as asbestos. In the 27 EU Member States, ~2.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer and 1.3 million die from it every year. In 2018, the economic costs of the disease were estimated to be 178 billion (US $187 bn).
Introducing measures to eradicate hazardous exposures, the EUs plan also recognized the urgent need to improve treatment options, medical care and support for cancer sufferers. Pursuant to these goals, the European Cancer Inequalities Registry will identify cancer incidences, trends and inequalities in Member States; the Knowledge Cancer Center will progress independent evidence-based scientific collaborations whilst the European Commissions Knowledge for Policy Platform will facilitate EU-wide research, synergies and coordination amongst social partners including EU-OSHA, national governments and civil society groups. Along with the EUs Zero Pollution Action Plan and the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability, these initiatives are considered by EU officials to be an effective investment in our citizens well-being.2
It is reassuring to see the acceptance by the EU of the need not only for regulatory intervention to reduce toxic exposures but also for the allocation of sufficient resources to achieve these goals.3 The joined up thinking exhibited by the EUs detailed strategy is substantiated by its consideration of the deleterious effects of the European Commissions Renovation Wave which, in the absence of adequate controls, could inadvertently increase exposure by releasing asbestos embedded in building materials.
Although asbestos has long been banned in the EU, products containing it remain in place. To address the potential hazard posed by this contamination:
EU safeguards on asbestos have been introduced through various directives on environmental pollution, chemical safety, workers protection and consumer products. Preparatory work to lower the existing OEL under the Asbestos at Work Directive (2009/148/EC) is under way. The European Parliament has also requested that the Commission submit a proposal for a framework directive setting out minimum requirements for national asbestos removal strategies (European Parliament, 2021).
When looking at the high-profile work to tackle Europes asbestos legacy, even the most hardened Brexiteer must have pause for thought. No such programs exist in the UK despite the best efforts of asbestos victims groups, trade unions, cancer charities and their supporters. A 2021/22 Parliamentary enquiry into the Governments asbestos policy by the Work and Pensions Committee was hampered from the start by its extremely limited scope.4 The Committees April 21, 2022 report identified significant failings by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and highlighted how far the UK had fallen behind its former EU colleagues Germany, France and the Netherlands in protecting citizens from occupational asbestos exposures.
In a statement made upon the reports publication, Committee Chair MP Stephen Timms said:
Asbestos is one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times and while the extreme exposures of the late twentieth century are now behind us, the risk from asbestos remains real. The drive towards retrofitting of buildings to meet net zero aspirations means the risk of asbestos exposure will only escalate in the coming decades. Falling back on regulations which devolve responsibility to individual building owners and maintenance managers will not be sufficient to protect peoples health.
Setting a clear deadline of 40 years for the removal of asbestos from non-domestic buildings will help to focus minds. The clock is ticking and the Government and HSE must now come up with a strategic plan which builds the evidence on safer removal and prioritises higher risk settings such as schools.
This is no time for laissez-faire. The Government needs to fund the HSE properly to allow it to reverse the decline in enforcement activity seen in the decade before the pandemic and ensure that asbestos, and its removal, is managed safely and effectively.5
As per regulations, the Government had two months to respond to the Work and Pensions Committees report. By June 30, 2022, it had still not done so.
June 30, 2022
1 European Environment Agency. Beating cancer the role of Europes environment. June 28, 2022.
2 European Environment Agency. Exposure to pollution causes 10% of all Cancer cases in Europe. June 28, 2022.
3 European Environment Agency. Asbestos. June 28, 2022.
4 Kazan-Allen, L. Parliament Call for Asbestos Eradication Program. May 3, 2022.
5 Set 40 year deadline for non-domestic building asbestos removal, MPs say. April 21, 2022.