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Reducing asbestos linked cancer incidence through decreased occupational exposure limits

Asbestos is a highly dangerous carcinogenic substance that contributes significantly to work-related cancers in the European Union (EU). Asbestos caused an estimated 71,750 deaths in the EU27 in 2019 due to occupational exposure¹, and it is responsible for approximately 78% of occupational cancers recognized in EU countries². An EU-wide ban on asbestos has been in place since 2005, though it still remains present in many older buildings, and asbestos fibres can be released when renovations or reconstruction work takes place. 

In light of the cancer risks presented by asbestos, ESMO has been advocating for strengthening the EU’s rules on asbestos, with the aim to prevent cancer cases caused by this substance in the workplace or through secondary exposure.

Key EU rules governing occupational exposure to asbestos are laid down in the Asbestos at Work Directive, which was revised in 2023. This legislation sets, amongst other things, an Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL) to asbestos which determines the airborne concentration of asbestos fibres that workers can be exposed to as an 8-hour timeweighted average. The Directive also establishes rules on the techniques and measuring methods used to measure asbestos fibres.

Throughout the revision of the Asbestos at Work Directive, ESMO called for stricter EU-wide exposure limits to asbestos, and contributed to the following changes to the legislation:

  • Strengthened OEL to asbestos (was 100,000 fibres per m3 before the revision). Under the new rules, EU Member State are required to either:
    • Measure thicker asbestos fibres in accordance with an OEL of 2,000 fibres per m3;
    • Measure thin asbestos fibres in accordance with an OEL of 10,000 fibres per m3.
  • EU countries will be obliged to use more modern measuring methods based on electron microscopy, replacing the more outdated phase-contrast microscopy that is being used in many Member States.

Given that asbestos remains a non-threshold carcinogen, for which there is no scientifically proven safe level, ESMO will continue to advocate for strong legislative measures at the EU level to further prevent exposure to this cancer-causing substance.

  1. Study on collecting information on substances with the view to analyse health, socio-economic and environmental impacts in connection with possible amendments of Directive 98/24/EC (Chemical Agents) and Directive 2009/148/EC (Asbestos) (September 2021)
  2. European Occupational Diseases Statistics (EODS)

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