21 April 1998
Dangers of asbestos for workers and the
Committee on the Environment, Regional Planning and Local Authorities
Rapporteur: Mr Mario Onaindia, Spain, Socialist Group
Asbestos is a naturally occurring rock whose fibres have been widely used for decades because of their exceptional properties. It has not only low thermal and electrical conductivity but also high resistance to abrasion, traction and acids. It is also a highly efficient acoustic insulator.
These many exceptional qualities easily explain the success of a substance whose devastating effects were not known at first and were probably concealed for a time for the economic or even technological reasons which once seemed to prevail.
Now the full extent of the effects of asbestos on health - whether of asbestos workers or of people who come into contact with it - and on the environment is known and clearly warrants drastic decisions concerning its production, import, use and, of course, removal.
The case of asbestos epitomises the relationship between health and the environment and, beyond that, the obligation incumbent on public authorities to have a clear health policy expressed through concrete measures for the management of risks and dangers.
The effects of asbestos on the environment are exclusively bound up with its very damaging effects on public health. Since asbestos is harmful only if inhaled, its only damaging effect on the state of the environment proper is air pollution. Its danger stems from its presence in a particular place coupled with any handling to which it may be subjected and the attendant release of dust particles which, if inhaled, are pathogenic.
The problems raised by asbestos are above all linked to the health of the public generally and of those who work with asbestos in particular. This aspect of the question must therefore be given greater priority than the environmental aspect.
The report of the Social Health and Family Affairs Committee clearly describes the pathogenic effects of the different types of asbestos, and I will therefore not repeat them here. It is, however, very important to stress the fact that although the risks and consequences of at least some types of asbestos on workers’ health are very well known, the same cannot be said about the effects of exposure to low doses of the same substances.
Attitude of public authorities to asbestos
As was noted earlier, the obvious carcinogenic effects of asbestos have been known since the 1960s, but the many advantages its use procured meant that no country felt impelled at that time to prohibit both its production and its use.
The responsible authorities generally preferred to opt initially for “safe” use of asbestos, thinking they could neutralise its effects, but unfortunately this policy very soon proved a failure.
Although risk control seemed more or less possible as far as extraction and processing were concerned, it proved impossible when the time came to implement controls in other sectors of the economy or in differing situations of potential danger in which the general public might find themselves.
As data on the pathogenic effects of asbestos became available, the various “safe-use” policies were gradually abandoned and replaced by restrictions on both its production and its use.
Yet even now, in late 1997 and early 1998, and despite the alarming data we have on asbestos, not even the European Union has been able to adopt a common position and is divided into two camps - on one side those countries2 which, while imposing restrictive legislation, have stuck to Directive 91/659 of 19 September 1991, and on the other those countries which have banned asbestos3.
When one considers closely the policies for controlled use of asbestos, it is not easy wholly to accept them or to be content with them, since dust levels - and it is asbestos dust which causes disease - vary widely and remain constantly quite high so that it is difficult, if not impossible, to hope to achieve a near-zero risk factor.
When this problem is discussed, Canada is readily cited as the most convincing example in support of a controlled-risk policy. But it is important to point out that extraction and processing in Canada are conducted in ideal conditions (advanced mechanisation, easy and frequent controls, very limited number of sites) which seemingly cannot be easily copied even in most European countries, let alone in the developing countries, which are increasingly becoming the asbestos industry’s favourite customers.
Furthermore, and this is important, the asbestos industry clearly represents powerful economic interests, and this makes it difficult to reach agreement on a ban. Efforts ought nonetheless to be made at Community level so that the European Union, while allowing exceptions to meet the justified concerns of certain member states, can adopt a common position and play an active part in a field which is so important for public health.
At the present time the major risks of asbestos for European Union countries and a number of other European and non-European countries no longer stem from the production and processing industries, in which - as a result either of legislation or of a proactive policy by decision-makers - risks have diminished considerably. In these countries the greatest problems at the moment are a consequence of the use by small and medium-sized enterprises of products containing unidentified asbestos and of the general public’s coming into direct contact with these products.
As regards those countries which have not adopted satisfactory legislation for controlling asbestos risks, it is essential to encourage all action which can result in the introduction of a more safety-conscious policy to ensure that the workers and populations most directly concerned are protected.
Current asbestos stock management
Having regard to these considerations, it is still important to stress that any ban will only affect the future. If the stock of asbestos in a country remains unchanged following such a decision, the risks it presents will have to be managed, and they are potentially increasing risks because of the ageing of the equipment and facilities where the asbestos is used and stored.
Contrary to what might at first be thought, the policy to be implemented should be aimed not only at the general public in contact with these varying quantities of asbestos but also at a new category of workers, namely those who will have to work on sites where for various reasons - structural weakening, waste processing or asbestos disposal - they will be exposed to the risks outlined above.
Thus, even in those countries which have banned asbestos or introduced major restrictions, priority will have to be given in future to policies which minimise the risks attendant on living and working with asbestos.
To this end, the first measure in any coherent policy must aim at identifying the presence of asbestos and assessing its state of conservation in order to decide what then needs to be done. It is also equally important to identify the populations in contact with asbestos.
The first step of preparing an inventory entails surveying and assessing the state of a) populations who have been in contact with asbestos, b) sites where asbestos is present, and c) products containing asbestos.
The inventory of sites and products containing asbestos and the assessment of the state of the asbestos found have been extremely difficult to effect, as they must be both exhaustive and sufficiently precise to allow for various factors such as the special nature of sites or products, of their use (a school is obviously not in the same category as an uninhabited rarely used building), of their owners (clearly, one is entitled to expect exemplary conduct from public authorities), and so on.
The second stage of a coherent policy must provide on the one hand for the measures to be taken in cases where the state of the site on which asbestos has been found warrants action to neutralise any pathogenic effects and on the other for the treatment of potential disease in persons exposed to the asbestos.
As regards action on sites where asbestos is found, two types of solution are possible: removal or treatment. For the time being, preference seems to have been given to removal; this entails total elimination of the risk but can, in certain cases (eg when asbestos is used for fire-proofing), necessitate replacement by an equally effective product, otherwise one risk is simply substituted for another.
It is impossible to give a final answer on which way such a decision should go in a general opinion like this one. I would merely stress the importance of making the decision on the basis of experts appraisals and of entrusting the work to highly qualified specialists and technicians.
The same comment is equally applicable to operations entailing the removal and treatment of asbestos. Such operations should be conducted in conditions of high security and near-zero risk. To this end, precise, permanent and -above all - immediate measures will be needed, the last-named permitting reparative action without delay.
The waste problem
Management of the waste resulting from asbestos removal and treatment operations will be a crucial aspect of future policies for managing asbestos.
Since asbestos is a natural fibre which, when processed, becomes permanently toxic from both the public health and environmental viewpoints, a comprehensive, rapid and radical solution needs to be found to the problem of waste.
The same attention will have to be paid to asbestos waste itself and to waste resulting from removal or treatment operations. For its part, the European Union considers waste from both sources to be dangerous.
Waste containing asbestos is generally regarded as special or dangerous waste which, depending on its owner’s decision or on its nature (stricter measures have to be taken in respect of the most dangerous forms, eg long fibres), can be either stored in special facilities or vitrified.
Vitrification totally destroys asbestos fibres and yields an inert product which can be recycled. Vitrification of friable waste seems without doubt to be the best solution, because, although relatively costly, it eradicates the risk.
Volume is often one of the major problems of waste management. This seems to be true for asbestos too, although it is impossible to make any forecast of the volume that will result from removal and site renovation operations.
However, we must expect intervention here in order to encourage firms to reduce the volume of their waste and so optimise treatment, burial, transport and other operations.
The thorny question of cost
Introducing an effective, long-term, totally safe policy for managing the existing stock of asbestos entails high costs for individuals, industry and public authorities.
We think it right to affirm that the State clearly has an obligation to aid the financing of the required work or to take fiscal measures to enable those concerned to tackle the asbestos risk. Only with such measures will it be possible to achieve tangible results in a reasonable time.
It should further be remembered that for some Council of Europe member states, especially Russia, banning the production, processing or use of asbestos can have serious economic and social (employment) consequences.
In such cases it is important for international aid programmes to intervene to help these countries solve their problems and put them in a position where they can at least adopt more restrictive legislation.
Protection of the population
In the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee’s report, this question is discussed in some detail. I am aware of the close link which exists between health and environment on the one hand and asbestos management on the other and would like to stress, on the Environment Committee’s behalf too, the need first and foremost to protect the people who, for one reason or another, are in contact with asbestos from the risks to which they may be exposed.
To this end it is essential to take account of the diversity of situations obtaining and to introduce major preventive measures. A factor of the utmost importance in a policy of prevention will be the provision of detailed and exhaustive information for these people, so that they can assume their share of responsibility for management of the risk.
The problems which asbestos raises for health and for the environment are so interconnected that it is difficult to treat them separately, and the Environment Committee endorses the considerations set out in the report presented by the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee.
It is nevertheless of the opinion that the Parliamentary Assembly ought to draw the attention of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and of the Governments to the questions which are the responsibility of the international community or of the governments and which are not as yet mentioned in the text.
I propose in particular that the member states’ attention be drawn to: a) the need to promote research into the development of substitutes for asbestos; b) the introduction of a clear and exhaustive policy of information and training; c) the need to guarantee the total independence of the expert appraisal of the stock of asbestos; d) the introduction of financial measures to ensure that action on asbestos and the optimum treatment of waste are not discouraged.
The amendments below illustrate these concerns, which I hope the committee will share.
Amendments proposed to the draft recommendation
At the end of paragraph 8.iii insert the following:
..., and provide financial resources to enable concrete results to be achieved;
After paragraph 8.v, insert a new paragraph to read:
help to guarantee the independence of the expert appraisals to be made both of the state of long-established applications and of such action as may need to be taken;
Replace paragraph 8.viii by a new paragraph to read:
give absolute priority to information and training for all the populations concerned, specialist workers and general public alike, to enable them to make an informed contribution to management of the asbestos risk;
After paragraph 8.ix insert two new paragraphs to read:
encourage research to develop substitutes for asbestos;
provide financial assistance, in the form of grants or tax incentives, to encourage industry, authorities and individuals to take the measures needed to reduce risks;
After paragraph 9.iii insert a new paragraph to read:
promote in international organisations programmes to help asbestos producer and user countries to halt - within periods to be determined in the light of their different situations - the production, processing or import of asbestos.
Reporting committee :Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee (Doc. 8015)
Committee for opinion : Committee on the Environment, Regional Planning and Local Authorities
Reference to committee : Reference No. 2040 (1995)
Opinion approved by the committee on 21 April 1998.
1 See Doc. 8015
2 Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, United Kingdom.
3 Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden.