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ESMO welcomes provisional agreement on strengthened EU rules to protect workers against asbestos exposure, aiming to prevent new cancer cases

03 Jul 2023

On Tuesday 27 June 2023, the European Parliament and the Member States of the European Union (EU) reached a provisional agreement on the revision of the EU’s rules on occupational exposure to asbestos, the Asbestos at Work Directive. The European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) welcomes the agreement reached as it significantly improves worker protection against asbestos, and it reflects ESMO’s recommendations aimed at preventing cancer cases caused by this highly carcinogenic substance.

The Asbestos at Work Directive is EU legislation that establishes binding EU-wide limits regulating occupational exposure to asbestos aimed at protecting the health of workers. This piece of legislation sets, amongst other things, an Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL) to asbestos which determines that workers cannot be exposed to an airborne concentration of asbestos in excess of 100,000 fibres per m3 (0.1 fibres per cm3) as an 8-hour timeweighted average.

Asbestos, in all forms, is a proven carcinogenic substance that caused an estimated 71,750 deaths in the EU27 in 2019 due to work-related exposure. ESMO has as such made calls for strengthening the existing OEL and extending the use of measuring methods based on electron microscopy - which are more modern and sensitive methods for detecting asbestos fibres.

ESMO therefore welcomes the provisional agreement as it, in line with ESMO’s key recommendation, lowers the OEL to asbestos. It will require the EU Member States 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EU countries will also be obliged to use measuring methods based on electron microscopy, replacing the more outdated phase-contrast microscopy that is currently being used in many Member States.

Asbestos remains a non-threshold carcinogen, for which there is no scientifically proven safe level, and even exposure to the thinnest fibres can have a severe impact on human health and cancer cases in Europe. ESMO therefore considers it important that the Asbestos at Work Directive is regularly reviewed in the coming years, and that legislative proposals for further tightening the OEL and other protective measures are made when new scientific knowledge becomes available.

There is also a need for implementing the new rules at the Member State level with the least possible delay, before the 6-year transition period set in the provisional agreement.

ESMO hopes for a swift formal adoption of the new rules and stands ready to continue working with the EU institutions and all stakeholders to ensure the best possible protection of workers against asbestos exposure.

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