Are we about to see renewed European Union action for the removal of asbestos?

In July 2014, the European Economic and Social Committee put forward a proposal, entitled “Freeing The EU From Asbestos”, which was discussed at a meeting held in January 2015. The chief recommendation was the “total removal of all used asbestos and all asbestos containing products”, which is to be a “priority target of the European Union.”

By the late 1970s and early 80s, growing widespread asbestos awareness to the long term fatal health risks of mesothelioma and other asbestosis diseases eventually led to the 1985 ban on the use of the most toxic blue and brown asbestos types in the UK.

A total ban in Europe, which now included white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos was introduced in 1999 and finalised by EU Directive 1999/77/EC in January 2005. However, a study published in 2011 by the BPIE (Buildings Performance Institute Europe) revealed that more than 40 per cent of residential buildings were constructed before the 1960s and a substantial share of the existing built environment across the EU is more than 50 years old.

Throughout a period of intensive housing construction between 1961 and 1990 when the housing stock in almost all the EU countries more than doubled, asbestos containing materials were widely used as standard insulation/fireproofing in every type of public, residential or commercial property.

According to the EU committee, despite the ban on the use of asbestos, it is still present in much of the building, transport and energy supply infrastructure of EU member states.

A unique opportunity for the removal of asbestos

As part of the EU commitment to achieving 80-95 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, renovation of the built environment not only offers significant potential to improving the energy performance of a property but also a unique opportunity for the removal of asbestos.

The committee urges all partners and other stakeholders at European, national and regional level to develop and share action plans for asbestos removal and management.

The recommended plans should include:

  • Education and information.
  • Training for public employees.
  • National and international training.
  • Programmes to fund asbestos removal.
  • Awareness-raising activities relating to the removal of asbestos.
  • Cleaning premises and installations in buildings.
  • Destruction of asbestos and asbestos-containing debris.
  • Monitoring of the effectiveness of existing legal requirements.
  • Exposure assessments of at-risk personnel and health protection.

Development at national level

It was also highlighted at the January meeting that despite the 2005 asbestos ban, millions of tonnes of asbestos still remain in buildings and not all the EU member states have introduced ‘asbestos registers’ of where the materials are located and the quantities of asbestos that need to be removed.

While the UK has begun a campaign, which aims to remove asbestos known to be present in up to 80 per cent of all schools, Poland is the only EU country that has established a nation-wide programme for the removal of all existing asbestos by 2030.

The crucial importance of sufficient funding for the removal of asbestos was raised by the committee who said they considered the organised and structured removal of asbestos to be a type of “improvement of infrastructure and regional development.”

The European Commission was urged to undertake a study of existing national approaches and systems for the registration of asbestos and opening access to its structural funds explicitly for asbestos removal plans.

“A threat to the general population”

In addition, the committee pointed to the latest scientific research into exposure levels/latency periods and the likelihood of asbestosis diseases developing. It referred to how very low doses of exposure can, when combined with a long latency period of up to 50 years or more, eventually turn tissue cells cancerous and form fatal, malignant mesothelioma tumours.

Describing asbestos exposure as defining “a threat to the general population in several member states” the committee referred to Word Health Organisation (WHO) figures.

According to the WHO, between 20,000 and 30,000 cases of asbestos-related diseases are recorded every year in the EU alone, and more than 300,000 citizens are expected to die from mesothelioma by 2030 in the EU. It is further estimated that worldwide 110,000 to 160,000 people die every year of asbestos-related diseases.