Asbestos Profile: European Union 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

 

 

Despite unilateral action by many European Union (EU) Member States, the EU itself was slow to take effective measures to minimize hazardous asbestos exposures. The introduction of EU safeguards developed in a piecemeal fashion over 20 years with various directives addressing occupational health, environmental contamination and consumer protection. Archival documents show that within the Commission of the European Communities much was known about the public and occupational threats posed by asbestos by the 1970s [Asbestos Public Health Risk].

Although the use of amphiboles was banned in the 1980s, chrysotile was still being used in Member States as the 21st century dawned [Asbestos: The Human Cost of Corporate Greed]. The EU-wide ban which took effect as of January 1, 2005 was made possible when France became the 9th Member State to ban asbestos, thereby giving the pro-ban lobby a majority voice in the EU asbestos debate [see: Europe Says No to Asbestos! and European Chrysotile Ban Upheld]. The ban allowed a time-limited single exemption for chrysotile asbestos diaphragms "used for electrolysis in existing installations." The 2008 review, which was mandated for this derogation, was rubber-stamped under mysterious circumstances and was subsequently challenged, unsuccessfully, by civil society [EU asbestos derogation]; as of August 2013, the derogation remains in force [Europe to Enter Post-Asbestos Era?].

Appreciating the significance of the French asbestos ban, the Government of Canada issued a legal challenge at the World Trade Organization; this case was successfully defended during the original hearing and the appeal by the EU on behalf of France [WTO Upholds French Ban on Chrysotile]. The case had many interesting facets not least of which were the unanimous decisions by independent expert witnesses who concluded that: chrysotile is a carcinogen, the concept of "controlled use" is unrealistic and safer alternatives exist. The fiasco of the amicus briefs is an interesting footnote to this complex litigation [The WTO: Who Needs Friends?].

There is little doubt that the EU's delay in reaching a consensus on the asbestos threat will prolong an epidemic in Western Europe which is claiming thousands of lives every year [Mesothelioma: A European Epidemic, Mesothelioma - The British Disease]; data for the incidence of mortality is unobtainable from most of Eastern Europe, a region where cheap asbestos fiber was dispensed liberally to former Soviet bloc countries [Overview of the European Asbestos Seminar and Related Meetings, Conference: Europe's Asbestos Catastrophe].

Russian asbestos stakeholders continue to assert that the use of chrysotile has had no ill effects in Russia; experts from Poland and Slovenia, however, have documented asbestos-related illness and mortality caused by the use of Russian chrysotile in their countries. In 2006, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Russia openly opposed the inclusion of chrysotile on the Prior Informed Consent list of the Rotterdam Convention [Chronological Record of Chrysotile Debate at the Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention]; the EU strongly supported the recommendations made by the UN agency to impose some regulation on the global asbestos trade. In 2013, of the seven parties to the Rotterdam Convention which blocked the listing of chrysotile on Annex III, four were from Eastern Europe [Rotterdam Convention 2013 - an Activist's Diary].

Within the EU's 25 Member States, there are glaring inconsistencies in the: enforcement of EU asbestos directives, diagnosis and treatment of asbestos-related diseases, funding for medical research, compensation and support for asbestos sufferers, practices for scrapping redundant asbestos-contaminated ships and regulation of asbestos removal and disposal sectors [European Asbestos Conference: Policy, Health and Human Rights, Conference: Europe's Asbestos Catastrophe].

Civil society activists representing asbestos victims support groups, trade unions, NGOs and political parties continue to lobby the European Union to take effective action to tackle the deadly legacies created by decades of asbestos mining, processing, use and dumping throughout Europe [Asbestos: The Human Cost of Corporate Greed, Asbestos Still a Killer, Conference: Europe's Asbestos Catastrophe].

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Updated August 2013

 

 

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