Global Asbestos Congress 2004

The situation in the European Union after the Total Ban on Asbestos

Laurent Vogel
European Trades Union Confederation (ETUC), Belgium.

Abstract
The trade unions' fight against asbestos has not ended now that the European Union has decided to prohibit any new use of asbestos. Asbestos-related repercussions on health will continue to pose a major problem in years to come.

The revision of the Community Directive concerning the use of asbestos has created a better legal framework in the EU countries. The Directive of 27 March 2003 demonstrates a certain amount of progress. In practice, it forbids manufacture of materials or products containing asbestos which are intended for export. Other positive elements are the decrease in the exposure limit to 0.1 fibres/cm3 and the extension of the Directive's scope.

However, the Directive does have certain deficiencies, notably:

But, above all, it is effective compliance with the adopted regulations which is problematic.

Among other crucial issues which have still to be addressed, the following will be discussed:

The asbestos tragedy is unfortunately typical insofar as there are numerous other chemical substances which kill a large number of people every year. The current debate surrounding the Commission's REACH proposals on European policy relating to chemical substances shows that the same mechanisms which contributed to the asbestos disaster are continuing to pose serious threats to workers' health, the population and the environment.

Introduction
I am deeply grateful to the organizers for their invitation. As you know, on the first of January 2005, the asbestos ban in the European Union will be implemented. It is a big victory for the Trade Unions and the Victims Associations. We should never forget that we had already all the necessary information for deciding on a ban at least 40 or 50 years ago. The delay means that hundreds of thousands of workers have died or will die in the next 30 years from an evitable disease. If we want to understand the causes of such a long delay, three elements seem to be crucial:

The main objectives of the European Trade Union Confederation are listed below.

1. Improvement of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) rules for the protection of workers exposed to asbestos
The revision of the European Union Directive concerning the protection of workers exposed to asbestos has created a better legal framework in the EU countries. The Directive of 27 March 2003 demonstrates a certain amount of progress. The new wording of Article 5 means, in practice, that it is forbidden to continue making materials or products containing asbestos which are intended for export. Other positive elements are the decrease in the exposure limit to 0.1 fibres/cm3 and the extension of the Directive's scope.

However, the Directive does have certain deficiencies, notably:

*The European Union Framework Directive from June 1989 defines the general rules for health and safety activities in the workplace.

2. Public registers of buildings containing asbestos
The new Directive has not resolved the problem posed by buildings containing asbestos. We believe it is necessary to create public registers of such buildings for, at least, the two following reasons.

  1. The regulations regarding building sites where asbestos exposures occur cannot be applied if there is no list of the buildings concerned to start with. In practice, the most dangerous asbestos exposures seem not to be at asbestos clean-up sites but at sites where other conversion work is done or buildings are demolished. This is because the workers are unaware of the presence of asbestos.
  2. Registers provide a better means of organising prevention of hazards posed by asbestos contamination in the environment. Generally speaking, buildings containing asbestos are residential buildings or places of work. Recent data confirms the extent of the hazard posed by asbestos both with regard to occupational exposures to weak doses and environmental or domestic exposures. A multicentric study carried out in six European areas from Italy, Spain and Switzerland indicates that low-dose domestic* and environmental exposures carry a risk of pleural mesothelioma2,3.

*It should be useful to discuss the traditional boundaries of "occupational health" as a discipline which covers only paid work. Non-paid work generally carried out by women is also a cause of ill health and is usually ignored by the prevention systems. In the case of asbestos the cleaning of asbestos contaminated clothes was quite usual for the wives of workers in different sectors.

3. Recognition of asbestos-related occupational diseases
Recognition of asbestos-related occupational diseases is still confronted by numerous obstacles in the European Union. This social injustice is aggravated by the absence of harmonised criteria for recognising occupational diseases. A study based on data from 19954 illustrated that there are still significant differences between recognition of mesothelioma in the different countries of the European Union. There are strong grounds to suppose that non-recognition of asbestos-related lung cancers is even more widespread. The data on asbestosis also indicate considerable disparities. Whereas the EU average for asbestosis cases recognised as occupational diseases is 30 per million workers, the figure is 1 per million in Portugal, 28 in the United Kingdom, 30 in France, 59 in Germany and 96 in Belgium. If it is imperative that recognition of asbestos-related illnesses be improved within the framework of compensation systems for occupational diseases, it might be useful to establish specific funds to allow better compensation for the victims (including self-employed workers, family members who have been subjected to domestic exposure, etc.). France's5 and the Netherlands'6 experiences with such funds could serve as a reference model for other countries. Recognition of occupational diseases should be accompanied by an improvement in the therapies available.

4. Legal proceedings against those responsible for this hecatomb
Legal proceedings against those directly responsible for workers' exposure to asbestos are all the more important because the compensation systems for occupational diseases only provide lump-sum payments which are relatively low compared to the total compensation paid where fault can be proven. From the political point of view, it is time to put a stop to the tolerance from which crime in the sphere of occupational health has benefited in the past.

5. Monitoring of European enterprises' activities and prohibition of exports of waste containing asbestos to developing countries
European enterprises' activities in developing countries continue to be based on double standards. The prevention policies implemented in Europe are rejected in other regions of the world. The most worrying aspect of policy on exports of toxic waste is the demolition of vessels in Eastern Asia. Many Europe-based multinational companies try to avoid compensating the victims and funding the reparation of environmental damages. It is part of our responsibility as European Trade Unionists to support campaigns for the compensation of damages caused by asbestos everywhere in the world.

6. Surveillance of the PPE market
Workers exposed to asbestos normally use personal protective equipment (PPE). How effective that equipment is depends on its quality and the practical conditions in which it is used. According to a Finnish survey on high-performance respiratory protection equipment, only 8 of the 21 devices tested would give workers proper protection against asbestos fibres. In the main, equipment quality is still verified by means of laboratory tests which do not take into account the actual conditions of use. A systematic feedback process should be organised with regard to how PPE performs in real working conditions7,8. Furthermore, it is crucial that the surveillance mechanisms for the personal protection equipment market be improved.

7. Necessity to learn lessons concerning asbestos for the debate on European policy relating to chemical substances (REACH)
In numerous industrialised countries today, the number of asbestos-related fatalities exceeds the number of fatal industrial accidents. Prevention policy has fallen behind in this area so much because of various factors. The most important factors are the persistent quest for profit and the fierce opposition to effective prevention on the part of some multinational enterprises. These companies pursue a strategy of exerting pressure on a number of bodies, for example, governments (in the name of competitiveness) and trade-union organisations (in the name of job-safeguarding). They have managed to hamper measures to produce scientific findings in order to promote underestimation of the risks.

The asbestos tragedy is, unfortunately, typical insofar as there are numerous other chemical substances which kill a large number of people every year. Recent Spanish research9 produced a conservative estimate that work-related diseases were the cause of 15,000 deaths a year in Spain. The main disease involved was cancer, and the main cause was chemical risks. Other national studies of work-related mortality have come to similar conclusions10.

The current debate surrounding the European Union Commission's proposals for a new regulatory framework relating to chemical substances (the REACH project) shows that the same mechanisms which contributed to the asbestos disaster are continuing to pose serious threats to workers' health, the population and the environment. The Commission's proposals for reform of the existing system are coming up against systematic lobbying from chemical industry employers, channelled through some governments. While failing to address all the issues the Commission proposals do at least highlight the importance of information feedback and could improve significantly the prevention policies at the workplace.

The systematic disinformation campaign run by the chemicals industry has already had some success11. The chemical industry's lobby is supported strongly by the Bush Administration in the United States12. The Commission proposal put out in October 2003 falls well short of the initial reform proposals. 2004 will be a turning point. The debates playing out are far and away the most important for workers' health and safety since the 1989 Framework Directive.

References

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  2. Selikoff, IJ, Lee DHK. Asbestos and Disease, Academic Press, New York, 1978.
  3. International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans. Suppl 7 106-16, IARC, Lyon, France, 1987.
  4. Yano, E, Wang SM, Wang XR et al. Cancer mortality among workers exposed to amphibole-free chrysotile asbestos. Am J Epi 154: 538-543, 2001.
  5. Pang, ZC, Zhang Z, Wang Y, Zhang H. Mortality from a Chinese asbestos plant: Overall cancer mortality. Am J Indust Med 32:442-444, 1997.
  6. Frank, AL, Li L, Cao, W et al. Radiologic evidence of asbestos disease in Chinese factory workers, Ann Occ Hyg 46 (Suppl 1): 154-156, 2002.
  7. Cai, SX, Shang CH, Zhang, X et al. Epidemiology of occupational asbestos-related diseases in China. Indust Health 39: 75-83, 2001.
  8. Wang, XR, Yano, E, Wang M, et al. Pulmonary function in long-term asbestos workers in China. JOEM 43: 623-629, 2001.
  9. Dodson, R, Frank AL. Unpublished.
  10. Lee, L. The current state of public health in China. Ann Rev Pub Health 25: 327-339, 2004.
  11. Germani, D, Belli, S, Bruno, C, et at. Cohort mortality study of women compensated for asbestosis in Italy. Am J Indstr Med 36: 129-134, 1999.
  12. Selikoff, IJ, Hammond, EC, Churg, J. Asbestos exposure, smoking, and neoplasia. JAMA, 204: 106-112, 1968.
  13. LaDou J, Landrigan, P, Bailer, JC, et al. Commentary: A call for an international ban on asbestos. Can Med A J 164: 489-490, 2001.