What is asbestos and why do we need to be protected from it?

Asbestos is a highly dangerous substance which can cause cancer and other illnesses. Environmental and occupational exposure to asbestos is known to contribute to the high burden of cancer, causing many avoidable deaths. 78% of cancers recognised as occupational cancer in the EU are related to asbestos. In 2019 alone, more than 70,000 workers died from past exposure to asbestos in the EU. The average time between initial asbestos exposure and the first signs of disease is about 30 years. Addressing the health risks stemming from exposure to asbestos is therefore part of the actions under Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan.

Since 2005, all use of asbestos is banned in the EU. Nevertheless, given that over 220 million buildings were built before the ban, it is likely that a significant part of today’s building stock still contains asbestos. A considerable number of renovations and demolitions are expected over the coming years. As part of the European Green Deal, the Renovation Wave Strategy includes the aim to double the annual rate of energy renovations of buildings by 2030, which are responsible for more than one third of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.

These renovations will improve health and living conditions for consumers, and reduce their energy bills. However, they will also increase the risks of exposure to asbestos while they are taking place, in particular for people employed in the construction sector.

The Commission proposal for a revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive also underlines that Member States should support energy performance upgrades of existing buildings that contribute to achieving a healthy indoor environment, including through the removal of hazardous substances like asbestos.

For all these reasons, the Commission’s Communication tackles asbestos in a comprehensive way, from health treatment and prevention to identification and safe removal of asbestos in buildings and waste treatment.

How are people and the environment in the EU currently protected against asbestos?

Over the past 40 years, the EU has taken action to limit and then ban asbestos. Between 1983 and 1985, the EU restricted the use of six types of asbestos fibres. In 1999, it banned all six types of asbestos fibres, with the EU asbestos ban taking effect in 2005 for goods both produced in and imported into the EU.

The most recent EU legislation protecting workers against exposure to asbestos is the Asbestos at Work Directive 2009/148/EC, which lays down strict obligations on employers in terms of protection, planning and training. Today, the Commission proposes to revise the Asbestos at Work Directive, to introduce an even stricter occupational exposure limit to asbestos and further increase workers’ protection. The overarching Occupational Safety and Health Framework Directive, which lays out the main principles of workers’ safety and health at work, and the Carcinogens, Mutagens and Reprotoxic Substances Directive dealing specifically with risks posed by carcinogens at work, offer additional safeguards to protect workers from the risks of asbestos exposure.

Investments in screening and early diagnosis can significantly help victims of asbestos exposure, as a quick diagnosis and treatment will mitigate the effects of asbestos-related diseases, including cancers, in line with Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and the build-up of a European Health Union. The Cancer Plan adopted in February 2021 aims to prevent cancer and ensure that cancer patients, survivors, their families and carers can enjoy high standards of diagnosis, treatment and a high quality of life. As part of the Cancer Plan Flagship initiative to put forward an EU-supported cancer screening scheme, the Commission  recently presented new Recommendations on cancer screening in the EU, including the extension of organised screening also to lung cancer. The scheme will be supported by the European cancer imaging initiative, aimed at fostering the development of new screening methods and algorithms.

Finally, to prevent harmful environmental effects, the management of asbestos-containing waste is also regulated at EU level, notably via the Waste Framework Directive  and a Decision establishing a list of wastes. As a result, asbestos is regulated in terms of its the production, transport, management, removal and reporting and traceability obligations. The disposal of asbestos waste in landfills is also strictly controlled under the EU Construction and Demolition Waste Management Protocol and Guidelines.

What is the European Commission presenting today?

The Commission puts forward today a Communication outlining the EU’s comprehensive approach to achieve an asbestos-free Europe for the current and future generations.

The Communication lists existing and new measures to fight asbestos in the EU and covers the following aspects:

  • supporting victims of asbestos-related diseases;
  • protecting workers against exposure to asbestos;
  • addressing asbestos present in buildings;
  • safe disposal of asbestos-containing waste and zero pollution;
  • EU financing support for related measures; and
  • the EU’s role as a global leader in the fight against asbestos.

The Commission also proposes to amend the Asbestos at Work Directive to protect workers and strengthen the prevention of asbestos-related diseases with a significant, tenfold reduction of the EU occupational exposure limit of asbestos (from 0.1 fibres/cm³ to 0.01 fibres/cm³).

What are the benefits of today’s proposal for citizens, workers, businesses and Member States?

For workers and citizens

The reduced occupational exposure limit for asbestos at work strengthens workers’ protection, improving the quality of life of workers and their families. It is estimated that over 600 additional asbestos-related cases of cancer can be prevented over the next 40 years. These additional prevented cases relate to workers who are still exposed to asbestos today. They come in addition to the ones already prevented by the numerous preventive measures and EU legislation in place since 1983 to protect people against exposure to asbestos, including the increasingly stricter occupational exposure limit to asbestos and the 2005 ban.  All this would result in savings between €166 million and €323 million for the workers and their families, as a result of improved length, quality and productivity of working lives, avoided premature deaths, or reduced costs of informal care, for example.

EU action will help achieve a uniform level of minimum protection for workers across the EU. This will also create fairer conditions for posted, cross-border and mobile workers exposed to asbestos in the construction sector (which has a significant number of posted workers moving from one site to another, often in multiple Member States). The wider public may benefit as well from reductions in the generation and spreading of asbestos dust because of improved risk management measures.

For employers

Employers and businesses will benefit from the level playing field created by a more harmonised approach, in particular companies operating in several Member States. Common solutions will avoid having to design site-specific protective measures, facilitating work for businesses. The reduced occupational exposure limit for asbestos at work is expected to reduce costs caused by work-related illnesses and cancer in terms of absenteeism, lost expertise, insurance payments and productivity losses. Increasing occupational safety and health could also make the construction sector more attractive, making it easier to recruit and retain staff and increase the productivity of workers.

For Member States

The revised occupational exposure limit will also help reduce costs for Member States’ social security and healthcare systems by preventing illnesses, at an estimated €3.4 million over 40 years. Moreover, the revision of the occupational exposure limit at EU level eliminates the need for Member States to conduct their own scientific analysis to independently determine the acceptable exposure level. This saves administrative costs and simplifies compliance checks due to a harmonised set of requirements.

What consultation process did you follow to propose a new occupational exposure limit for asbestos?

The proposal for a new occupational exposure limit is the result of an extensive consultation process and a thorough analysis of scientific, social and economic factors. The Commission has notably considered the following contributions:

  • The scientific opinion of the Risk Assessment Committee of the European Chemicals Agency;
  • The opinion of the Advisory Committee on Safety and Health at Work, composed of representatives of Member States’, workers’ and employers’ organisations, which looks not only at scientific aspects but also at socio-economic impacts and technical feasibility;
  • The results of a two-stage social partners consultation, where workers’ and employers’ representatives have provided feedback; and
  • The results of the Impact Assessment which analysed the different options in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, feasibility, and coherence.

How are these initiatives linked to the green transition?

This Communication comes at a time when the EU is determined to significantly improve the energy efficiency of buildings, and to achieve a zero-emission and fully decarbonised building stock by 2050. The Renovation Wave Strategy aims to double annual renovation rates by 2030, which will improve health and living conditions for consumers but is also likely to increase the number of workers and citizens potentially exposed to asbestos while the renovations take place. The need to contribute to achieving a healthy indoor environment, including through the removal of asbestos, is also highlighted under the revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, proposed by the Commission in December 2021. Addressing the health risks of exposure to asbestos is therefore essential to achieve a green transition that puts public health and decent living and working conditions at its core. Furthermore, measures to ensure a safe management of asbestos-containing waste will contribute to environmental objectives, in particular for the decontamination of toxic substances promoted in the Zero Pollution Action Plan.

What EU funds are available to support health prevention, treatment of illnesses and removal of asbestos?

There are several EU funds available to support Member States’ actions for health prevention, treatment of illnesses and removal of asbestos. They include the following:

  • The Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) can be used to fund the removal of asbestos-containing materials from buildings as part of energy efficiency renovation works. Member States can also use the RRF to reskill and upskill workers handling asbestos. The RRF can be also finance healthcare reforms and investments, focusing on prevention, diagnosis and treatment, including of cancer patients.
  • The European Social Fund Plus (ESF+) can support structural reforms for equipping workers handling asbestos with new and additional skills and support their lifelong learning. In 2015-2017 for instance, a practical course for young construction workers by the Institute for Building Sector Training in Luxembourg, co-funded by the ESF, included a training on the removal of solid asbestos.
  • The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) can co-finance projects for large-scale asbestos removal. In Portugal, €3 million from the ERDF were used in 2020 to renovate schools in Portimão, including through the removal of asbestos. In Belgium, an ERDF-funded project set up in 2018 to build a new administrative centre for the Hainaut region used funds to remove asbestos safely from an old coal-mining site.
  • The Peer2Peer+ initiative can also offer support for administrative capacity building and for the exchange of expertise and knowledge between national authorities managing cohesion policy programmes.
  • The EU4Health programme with an overall budget of €5.3 billion for the period 2021-2027 can be activated for health promotion and disease prevention, in particular cancer.

How is the EU helping to eliminate asbestos worldwide?

The EU must continue to play a leading role globally to end the use of all types of asbestos. While the EU has banned all use of asbestos, several non-EU countries still produce and use asbestos-containing products, with global production reaching approximately 1.2 million tonnes in 2021.

Through technical assistance under the Rotterdam Convention, the EU helps countries replace asbestos materials with safer substitutes, and improve early diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation for asbestos-related illnesses.

The EU also leads by example in the protection of workers from the risks related to asbestos exposure. The proposed update to the occupational exposure limit at EU level will make it one of the strictest in the world, together with Switzerland. The EU will continue its work in promoting workers’ protection globally, for instance in the framework of the International Labour Organization and G7 and G20 initiatives.

For More Information

Press release: Commission acts to better protect people from asbestos and ensure an asbestos-free future

Factsheet: protecting people from asbestos

Communication on working towards an asbestos-free future

Proposal for amending the Asbestos at Work Directive