27th Feb 2024

EU's green renovation wave lacks plan to deal with asbestos

  • Asbestos is the main cause of workplace fatalities in the EU, with around 90,000 people dying each year from related cancers (Photo: Eric Haglund)
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By 2030, around 35 million buildings across the EU will be either renovated or demolished under the Green Deal — but the EU Commission has yet to propose a directive on screening and registering asbestos in European buildings.

The EU adopted new rules in October 2023 to reduce workers' exposure to this harmful substance, but there is still a lack of information on the extent of asbestos contamination in buildings and infrastructure across the EU-27 bloc.

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Workers in construction, fire-fighting, industry, education and offices are at "significant risk" of exposure to asbestos in buildings, unions warned in a letter sent to commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Monday (29 January).

"The absence of mandatory screening and registration exacerbates this issue, leaving workers unknowingly exposed to this hazardous substance," reads the letter, signed by five unions, including the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), IndustriAll and the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU).

Asbestos is in fact the number one cause of workplace fatalities in the EU, with around 90,000 people dying each year from asbestos-related cancers.

With the upcoming wave of building renovations under the EU's Green Deal plans, the four to seven million workers exposed to the substance are expected to increase by four percent over the next decade, says the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).

Moreover, the directive would not only have to deal with the screening of buildings, the unions point out, but include key elements such as worker training, the safe disposal of asbestos waste, and the decontamination of clothing and equipment.

"Every day, workers in the EU get sick or die from unnecessary exposure to asbestos, and the needless delays in asbestos screening only add to this," MEP Nikolaj Villumsen (The Left) told EUobserver.

The commission was expected to present a proposal for a directive in the second quarter of 2023, according to their official website, but the announcement — by EU commissioners Valdis Dombrovskis and Margrethe Vestager — in June 2023 was later taken off the agenda (which was only tentative).

According to the latest calendar published by the EU executive, dated 24 January, the two commissioners have no plans to launch it between now and the end of February — leaving only a small margin of manoeuvre to deliver any legislation.

"As we approach the final stage of the institutional term for the commission and the parliament, we emphasise the urgency of taking decisive action," the letter concludes.

Asbestos was banned almost 20 years ago, but some 220 million buildings were constructed in Europe before then — and the effects of exposure to the substance can take 20-40 years to appear.

"Sadly, it is the workers ending up paying for the delays of the European commission," the MEP Villumsen said.


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