EU Asbestos Derogation 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



One thing that public health campaigners, grass-roots activists and trade unionists know for certain is that any victory won for the betterment of humanity will only be temporary. The 2005 EU-wide ban on asbestos is widely lauded as an exemplary piece of legislation – one which placed health before profit and human life before corporate greed. In 1999 when the EU adopted the asbestos directive, there was a time-limited derogation for the use of chrysotile asbestos in “diaphragms used for electrolysis in existing installations.” This exemption was always intended to be temporary as the Commission Directive 1999/77/EC explained: “the Commission will review this derogation before 1 January 2008…”1 Somewhere along the line, however, a decision was taken by EU bureaucrats to contravene the intent of the directive. That they did so in secrecy and without consulting at-risk groups belies belief and led to calls by MEPs for them to account for their actions.2

On December 17, 2008, the European Commission attempted to garner support for an indefinite extension of this derogation at a meeting in Brussels; at the same time, the Commission tried to secure approval for a legislative manoeuvre to legalize the marketing of some asbestos-containing products within member states. Fortunately, news of the Commission's nefarious plans was circulated in time for members of asbestos victim support groups, trade unionists and public health campaigners to voice their outrage to national representatives. A declaration was issued by European asbestos victim support groups, meeting in Strasbourg on December 16; they condemned “the European Commission's attempt to allow asbestos to continue being imported and asbestos-containing articles to be put on the market and used” and called on MEPs “to stand up to the asbestos lobby and to make a consistent, principled stand for asbestos to be banned throughout Europe and the wider world.”

It seems that pressure exerted by the public succeeded in stalling the Commission's plans; a press release issued on December 22, 2008 by the European Trade Union Confederation reported:

“At the meeting's close, the Commission decided not to push for a vote, having seen that several Member States were averse to its proposal… It is a fair bet that the Commission will put up a new proposal in January 2009. Will it drop the asbestos let-outs, or just tinker at the edges? A sharp watch has to be kept. Were the derogations for asbestos to be accepted by a majority of Member States, the European Parliament would have to react within three months to stop the new provisions coming into effect. It is expected that the vote will take place on 19 February 2009.” 3

There is little doubt that the Commission's decision not to call for a vote on December 17 th was a temporary reprieve and not a final victory. As we approach the 10th anniversary of the EU directive banning asbestos, a concerted effort is needed to ensure that the legislation is applied across the board and with no exemptions, derogations or let-outs. It is time that Europeans received the full protection they were promised and which their democratically elected representatives intended when the decision was taken to end the use of asbestos in member states.

January 6, 2009


1 EU Commission Directive 1999/77/EC of 26 July 1999 adapting to technical progress for the sixth time Annex I to Council Directive 76/769/EEC on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States relating to restrictions on the marketing and use of certain dangerous substances and preparations (asbestos).
See also the European Trade Union Institute's: Note on the derogation on the use of asbestos in electrolysis cells.

2 On September 14, 2007 Kartika Liotard, an MEP from the Netherlands, lodged a series of questions with the European Parliament which highlighted the Commission's lack of consultation, due diligence and transparency on the asbestos derogation.
Kazan-Allen L. EU Asbestos Derogation. January 8, 2008.

3 European Trade Union Confederation Press Release. Time to Halt EU Asbestos Imports. December 12, 2008. See:



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