Despite a 2005 ban, cases of asbestos-related diseases are on the rise again, prompting calls from industry and workers’ safety advocates to tighten exposure rules.
Jukka Takala is the former president of International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH). Rolf Gehring is the Political Secretary in charge of wood and occupational safety and health at the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers.
- Cases of asbestos-related illnesses are increasing despite a ban in 2005
- Asbestos is everywhere: pipes, cars, and ceilings
- Germany is a former asbestos champion, where more than 5000 products contained it
- Because of asbestos’ properties, it continues to see use in Brazil, India, and China
What are the most common health risks associated with handling asbestos, inhaling it?
Takala: In terms of negative outcomes, lung cancer. Secondly, mesothelioma, it’s a lining of the lung, ovary cancer for women, and then larynx cancer, in the throat. These are recognised. Researchers suspect many others, colon cancer and stomach cancer, although lung cancer is absolutely the biggest one. In many countries, lung cancer is not well recognised as linked to asbestos, and instead usually attributed to smoking.
Would you say that Europe has a stash of asbestos hidden away in buildings that is only now starting to see the light as we started addressing the 75% of new buildings that need to be renovated in the years to come?
Takala and Gehring: It is not something new, but there’s a recent gradually increasing problem, because asbestos was perceived to be useful for more than 100 years. The main peak in the European Union was in the 1960s and early 70s.
But now exposures are growing again, coming from installed asbestos in infrastructure, not only buildings, but many sources, including vehicles or other sources from that time which is still there. And that means asbestos is in the air, what you are inhaling now.
Where specifically is asbestos built into the infrastructure?
Takala: Of course, buildings, that is roofs, ceilings, floors, walls, as well. Asbestos is everywhere.
Gehring: It is a lasting problem. And if we start the renovation wave, then we will see a peak in terms of exposure.
Knowledge of workers is starting to become a problem, too. Older construction workers 60 or 50 years old, still know about asbestos containing products, while the younger generation don’t. That creates a specific problem in the workplace.
Asbestos can be near everywhere. In some countries, they used asbestos containing material as a first layer when creating streets. In others, asbestos cement was used for pipes.
Do you think that EU action is going far enough?
Takala: No, it doesn’t go far enough. It’s a compromise between those who don’t want to do anything and those who want to do something properly, so that we don’t kill millions of people in the field.
Gehring: It’s far from being perfect. But I will not accuse the European Commission, as it often happens, it is a compromise between different standards on national level. However, the EU needs to regulate much stronger and more comprehensive
Why is it so crucial that EU action happens in the space of asbestos instead of at the national level?
Gehring: There are many reasons. One reason is that it is a European problem. And it is a problem for migrant, posted or cross boarder workers, as well as people just going on holiday.
People coming from Sweden or Finland, they also work in Ireland or the other way around, Polish construction workers are spread all over Europe. So it is a European task.
Takala: Europe is the most affected region in the whole world. We have used the most asbestos in the world. Now, countries like China and India use a lot of asbestos. But nowhere is it as common as in Europe. Do we need the EU for this? Yes.
Gehring: When you have a look on all the aspects of asbestos, there is a big chance to learn from each other, and to avoid inventing the wheel twice or running into a dead end street or making mistakes because we can exchange the knowledge.
The implementation of the real good measures, that is something we need to manage on the European level or in a European effort to cooperate.
How come Europe is so heavily invested in or used to be so heavily invested in asbestos?
Takala: Asbestos was used extensively over the last seventy years in Europe, due to its properties as a material. It is both cheap and very heat-resistant.
Gehring: It also relates to the tradition of constructing and the way we are living. I think Germany was the country with the highest number of asbestos containing products, coming up to almost 5000 different products.
Takala: The problem with asbestos is that is a really nice fibre, it’s solid and doesn’t burn even at high temperatures. So that’s why it’s an excellent material. And why it’s still used today, in countries like Brazil, China and India.
You’re pushing to have asbestos related diseases or sicknesses recognised as part of occupational diseases that affect construction workers?
Gehring: In some countries, you have the restriction that a specific occupational disease is only recognised for specific professions, which is not logical, but it is a reality. All these diseases have to be covered by the European list of occupational diseases (which is just a recommendation), and on national level where it is more stringent.
How would a framework to limit exposure to asbestos look like?
Gehring: We demand a European plan to remove all existing asbestos from buildings and infrastructure. This can’t be done in one or two years, but it is crucial, otherwise we risk kicking the can down the road. If we seal asbestos, we transport the problem to the next generation.
Takala: I think broadening the scope of awareness is one of the key points. Exposure limits do a lot to raise awareness, which is something that needs to be done now. It was easy to alert everyone for COVID-19, but asbestos has already killed more people.
Can we already observe an uptick in asbestos-related illnesses in the last five or so years?
Takala: Yes, that is exactly what we observe! Every year now, we get more and more asbestos related illnesses, even though the peak of asbestos use is long past. That means that infrastructure containing asbestos, and working on the infrastructure, is exactly the problem.
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