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EU Leads with Stringent Exposure Measures as UK Lags Behind

Despite the EU's ban on asbestos nearly two decades ago, this hazardous material continues to pose a significant threat to workers' health, particularly due to its prevalence in older construction. Recognising the ongoing risk, the EU has recently tightened its regulations, drastically reducing the permissible exposure limits and adopting more advanced measurement techniques to ensure worker safety.

Stricter Exposure Limits to Protect Health

In a decisive move to enhance occupational safety, the EU has set forth new rules that significantly lower the workplace control limit for asbestos exposure to 0.01 fibres per cubic centimetre. This new limit is a substantial tenfold decrease from the previous threshold of 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre. The urgency of these revised limits highlights the serious health risks that even minimal asbestos exposure poses.

Transition to Advanced Measurement Methods

To support these stricter exposure limits, the EU mandates a transition period of up to six years for member states to adopt Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) for asbestos measurement. TEM is markedly more sensitive than the currently utilised phase-contrast microscopy (PCM) and is capable of detecting thinner fibres of asbestos that were previously unmeasurable.

Following the adoption of the new exposure limits, member states have two years to adjust their domestic legislation. However in 2029, the standards will take a further leap forward. EU member states will face a critical decision:

  • Opt to measure thin asbestos fibres by TEM, maintaining the exposure limit at 0.01 fibres per cubic centimetre.
  • Choose not to measure these thin fibres by TEM, in which case the exposure limit will be further reduced to an even stricter 0.002 fibres per cubic centimetre if PCM is used.

The UK's Stance: A Cause for Concern

Contrastingly, in the UK, the current workplace exposure limit remains at 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre measured by PCM, unchanged and significantly higher than the EU's new standards. Notably, there has been no indication from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or the UK government to align with the EU's recent decision. This discrepancy was apparent when I raised the issue at the 2023 FAAM conference, only to encounter a lack of commitment to change.

This inaction is particularly concerning given the epidemiological findings by Hodgson & Darnton in 2000, which suggest that risk levels for developing asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma or lung cancer approach tolerable levels only at exposures below 0.0001 fibres per cubic centimetre, a threshold far below both current and proposed limits.

Technological Shortcomings and Future Implications

The EU's new directive underscores the need for transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to measure ultrafine asbestos fibres, which are invisible under older methods like PCM as used in the UK. The lack of widespread adoption of TEM in the UK, coupled with limited industry guidance, starkly highlights the technological and regulatory gap between the UK and the EU.

With these advanced EU measures set to reduce permissible exposure levels to 0.002 fibres per cubic centimetre by 2029, achieving such a dramatic reduction appears unfeasible for the UK under its current practices. This gap not only reflects technological and regulatory shortcomings but also a failure to protect workers based on scientific evidence which has been available for decades.

Conclusion

As the EU strides forward with rigorous asbestos safety regulations, the UK's continued reliance on outdated methods and higher exposure thresholds is increasingly untenable. It is imperative for the UK to revisit its asbestos safety protocols and align more closely with international best practices to adequately protect its workers from the long-term health risks of asbestos exposure. The well-being of countless workers depends on such critical regulatory evolution.

Marcus Hill

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