EU Asbestos Derogation 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Article Update (January 8, 2008)

Over the last two years, the new use of asbestos has been banned throughout the European Union (EU); the single exemption to this comprehensive prohibition was for chrysotile asbestos diaphragms “used for electrolysis in existing installations.” Under Commission Directive 1999/77/EC, this derogation was due for review by January 1, 2008.1 Despite several attempts to ascertain the state of this review, no information was forthcoming from EU sources. On July 3, 2007, Stephen Pickering from Unit G.2, of the European Commission's Directorate General Enterprise and Industry confirmed that EU bureaucrats supported the continuation of the existing derogation. This decision was the result of deliberation by a Unit G.2 working party which consulted industry and Member States; there was no attempt to elicit comment from civil society, trade unions, non-governmental organizations or asbestos victims' association during this review.

The consultation and deliberation procedures of the working group were not transparent, there is confusion over factual information submitted and errors in conclusions drawn by the working group. The failure to invite input from groups representing civil society, labour, asbestos victims or environmental interests is a blatant disregard of the democratic process and a travesty of all that the EU is meant to represent. Statements contained in Doc.7-WG-limitations-03-07-07 (July 3, 2007): Note to the Attention of Members of the Working Group on Restrictions on the Marketing and Use of Dangerous Substances and Preparations (Council Directive 76/769/EEC) are wrong.

In the Working Group Document “Industry argues for the continued use of the low voltage installations, which is more energy efficient than the high voltage installations, and for which the use of asbestos diaphragms poses no risk.” However, experience elsewhere has found that the risk of exposure to asbestos in the chlor-alkali industry is not lower than the risk in other sectors.2 In the absence of inspections by independent experts or trade union representatives, there is no reason to accept industry's assurances on face value

The Working Group Document states “Given that the technical difficulties in moving away from asbestos remain the same as when the derogation was granted and that the operation of the installations has apparently not resulted in any risk, there do not appear to be grounds for withdrawing the derogation.” However, when the derogation was put in place, factories in France were using chrysotile diaphragms. These factories have now been converted to use safer alternatives. If this conversion was possible in France, the technical difficulties are not insurmountable; due to the new technology, the derogation should be discontinued.

Concerned about the possible repercussions of prolonging this dangerous exemption, on September 14, 2007, Kartika Liotard, a Member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, submitted the following questions to the European Commission:

  1. Can the Commission confirm that in arriving at this advice the working group did not obtain the advice of relevant NGOs such as patients' organisations, trade unions, public health groups or environmental organisations? If this is the case, why were such bodies not consulted? If it is not the case, could the Commission list the organisations so consulted and state what advice they offered?

  2. Is the Commission aware of the fact that alternatives exist for diaphragms containing asbestos, in the form of Polymarix, a material fabricated from fluorinated polymer and zircon, and that these are already in use in the electrolytic preparation of chlorine? Given the existence of such alternatives, is the continuation of the exception not in conflict with Directive 1999/77/EC?

  3. Can the Commission confirm that the working group referred to a company which produced hydrogen and also used diaphragms containing white asbestos? If this is the case, which company was this? Is this not in conflict with Directive 1999/77/EC, which explicitly allows an exception solely for the preparation of chlorine?

  4. Does the Commission share the working group's view that the use of diaphragms containing asbestos poses no danger either to those working with it or to the broader environment? If so, on which studies does the Commission base this standpoint?

  5. Does the Commission intend to adopt the working group's recommendation? Does the Commission consider that more detailed research is necessary? If not, why not?

In light of the EU position that economic considerations should not take precedence over occupational or public health, there is no acceptable reason for the continuation of this exemption. That such an important decision has been taken behind closed doors and with restricted input is an undemocratic act which transgresses the EU ethos as well as the democratic rights of EU citizens to be protected from deadly substances.

September 25, 2007

Update (January 8, 2008)

On November 27, 2007, Mr. Verheugen from the European Commission responded to the above series of questions (see EU Parliament Answer E-2007-4631).


1 The EU ban on asbestos was enacted by Commission Directive 1999/77/EC; as exemption for the use of diaphragms containing chrysotile asbestos was permitted for “existing electrolysis installations until they reach the end of their service life, or until suitable asbestos-free substitutes become available…” This derogation was to be reviewed by 1 January 2008.

2 Giannasi F. Ban on Asbestos Diaphragms in the Chlorine-related Chemical Industry and Efforts toward a Worldwide Ban. Int J Occup Environ Health 2007;13:80-84



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