The EU’s Beating Cancer Plan has been heralded as the flagship health initiative and ‘masterplan’ of the European Commission in the fight against cancer.
As the first initiative under this Plan, the Commission has now presented a legislative proposal on occupational safety and health (OSH). The proposed fourth revision of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (CMD) sets new or revised binding occupational exposure limit values for three substances that can cause cancer.
The Commission noted that each year, about 120,000 work-related cancer cases occur because of exposure to carcinogens in the EU, leading to approximately 80,000 fatalities annually, making cancer the cause of half of the deaths linked to work. Estimates showed that more than 1.1 million workers in a wide range of sectors would benefit from improved protection by the proposed changes. With this revision, new or updated limits will have been put on 27 carcinogens since 2014.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) criticized the EU claiming it has taken no action to limit exposure to 20 more cancer-causing substances, while existing exposure limits for common workplace carcinogens like crystalline silica, diesel emissions and asbestos do not offer sufficient protection and urgently need to be updated. The ETUC has said that its objective is to have binding occupational exposure limits under the CMD for at least 50 priority carcinogens by 2024. It has called for a new coherent and transparent system of setting EU exposure limits based on those of Germany and the Netherlands, noting that up to 12% of all cancer cases are work-related.
However, it welcomed the proposal as a step in the right direction, as it would protect workers particularly in the manufacturing and construction industries. Construction workers will likely be exposed to more insulation products and waste in the coming years, as the European Commission recently stated that the renovation rate in the EU member states must double to reach the 2030 climate target. Today the Commission explained how it wants to achieve this in its Renovation Wave communication.
This begs the question whether workers in the construction sector, from manufacturing to renovation sites and waste management, need additional protection when dealing with mineral wool, a commonly used insulation material. It is manufactured with the carcinogen formaldehyde as binder, which has been on the trade union’s priority list, and was regulated under the CMD in 2019. The EU Regulation on Classification, Labelling and Packaging of substances classifies mineral wool itself in general as a suspected carcinogen. However, certain exemptions apply, and the CMD does not currently protect workers from mineral wool.
A 2009 academic article noted that mineral wool waste shares the properties of the original material. This included “the carcinogenic potential of old mineral wools, secondary components such as binder and lubricant contents”. Earlier this year, Austrian state television ORF called mineral wool waste “as carcinogenic as asbestos”, highlighting problems with its safe management. Experts in the EU institutions are aware of these concerns.
Speaking after an event in the European Parliament, Aurel Laurenţiu Plosceanu from the European Economic and Social Committee, a consultative body of the EU, and the Rapporteur on ‘Working with Hazardous Substances’ said last year: “More needs to be done to make more people aware of the potential dangers of mineral wool. There is a real risk associated with this material and, like asbestos, people need to be made aware of the possible risks.” He called for a range of measures, including an awareness raising campaign, better labelling, more investment in research and safer equipment for people in the construction industry who work with the material. He added: “The particular problem with this material is that any health problems may not actually appear in someone until long after their exposure to it. With something like lung cancer, which, as with asbestos, is a possible health risk associated with this, unfortunately that could be too late.”
As with any other ordinary legislative proposal, the European Parliament and the Council will have the opportunity to amend the proposed revision of the CMD before adopting it. The European Commission is expected to adopt the broader Beating Cancer Plan later this year. It remains to be seen whether the EU institutions will also address the concerns surrounding the use of mineral wool.