IMA-Europe: Mineral exposure should be controlled, not banned

Published: Monday, 12 November 2012

Europe’s key industrial minerals association says “use better” not “use less”

By Carmen Paun

Can't see video? click here to watch Michelle Wyart-Remy

There are no reasons for the European Union (EU) to create new regulations that would further restrict or ban the use of some minerals on the continent, Michelle Wyart-Remy, Industrial Minerals Association Europe (IMA-Europe) secretary general, told IM.

In an exclusive interview from her offices in Brussels, Wyart-Remy, head of Europe's key industrial minerals umbrella body, said the use of crystalline silica or talc should be controlled, but not banned or restricted in Europe.

Crystalline silica is currently under the attention of the European Commission, which is revising directive 2004/37/EC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens in the workplace.

IMA-Europe argues that an EU occupational exposure limit (OEL) value for respirable crystalline silica should instead be set under another piece of legislation, directive 98/24/EC, on the protection of the health and safety of workers from the risks related to chemical agents.

If an OEL is set at a sensible level using this legislation, respirable crystalline silica could continue to be used and the health risks for workers, i.e. silicosis, will be prevented, Wyart-Remy said.

However, if the European Commission decides to regulate respirable crystalline silica under the carcinogens and mutagens at work directive, it may ask the industry to substitute crystalline silica regardless of the level of exposure.

“It’s not a question even of banning the use of crystalline silica through this directive; it’s a question of protecting workers from exposure to processes which may generate respirable crystalline silica," Wyart-Remy explained.

The issue has yet to be decided by Brussels, but industry is confident, she said, as it has put into place appropriate prevention measures, including the ‘Agreement on Workers' Health Protection Through the Good Handling and Use of Crystalline Silica and Products Containing it’.

Talc is another mineral that is regularly monitored, but there are no fears of a possible restriction or ban at the moment, Wyart-Remy told IM.

Recent reassessments on the effects of talc by the French Agency for Sanitary Safety for Food, the Environment and Labour and by the Dutch Expert Committee on Occupational Standards have shown that there are no reasons to impose stricter measures on talc exposure in workplaces across Europe, Wyart-Remy added.

She also welcomed a move by the Polish government to ask for a review of the existing classification of borates as toxic for reproduction.

“They consider that the evidence in animals is not relevant for human exposure," said Wyart-Remy.

The Poles are expected to submit a new file of evidence with the request for reclassification by the end of the year.

Since 2009 boric acid, disodium tetraborate and diboron trioxide have all been classified as toxic for reproduction under the EU’s classification, labelling and packaging regulation, which is now part of the overall chemical control system.

Although the Polish move might be good news for the borates industry, Wyart-Remy cannot yet predict the outcome. “We will see what will be the expert consensus on this proposal," she said.

Borates will be in the industry’s attention next year, too, when three other borate-related substances in quantities of between 100 and 1,000 tpa will have to be registered with the European Chemicals Agency by May 2013 under REACH legislation.

However, this is unlikely to be as daunting a task as it was for the previous deadline in 2010, where substances used in volumes of 1,000 tonnes or more were registered, Wyart-Remy explained.

Under REACH, only the chemically-modified minerals have to be registered, so industrial minerals occurring naturally are exempt. However, the industry submitted 15 registration files in 2010 for chemically-modified minerals. The workload was obviously “greater than it is now”, she continued.

Minerals at the crossroad of resource efficiency

Brussels has been pushing for greater resource efficiency across the raw materials industries during the past two years.

The European Commission put forward a policy paper last year explaining its vision on how to make Europe more resource efficient, and now holds a public consultation on efficiency indicators.

“The tendency to over simplify a complex issue can lead to a form of dogmatism”, Wyart-Remy opined, adding that the "use less" slogan under which it has been promoted is a strange concept for a resource industry such as industrial minerals.

“I have a problem with promoting ‘use less’. I would have preferred ‘use better’, or use more effectively, designing products to ‘be more eco-efficient’ and ‘use the right resource’. That means looking at the whole value-chain life-cycle”, she said.

Resource exploitation in Europe has not been exhausted, Wyart-Remy addded, and new resources may yet be found, as has recently happened with gas.

“Our industrial minerals are not rare. [But] It’s true that some of them might be at risk or more constrained than others”, she said, noting that environmental and political pressures may be the real reasons behind this rather than actual scarcity.

The example of rare earths is a case in point, she said. China has come under fire for restricting its rare earths exports, which are much in demand from high-tech industries. But Wyart-Remy believes the problem does not only lie in China, but closer to home.

“We still have rare earth reserves in Europe and the US, and we have decided not to extract and process them. We need to look at the consequences, since this approach could be extended to other extracting industries," she told IM.

A balance should be kept between environmental protection demands and industrial supply needs, she said, stressing that global issues of environment protection are not solved by importing minerals from countries with potentially lower environmental standards.

But restarting activities in Europe will be difficult, she added.

“It’s been a long time [since] we had this kind of extraction and reopening would take time,” Wyart-Remy said, noting that Europeans need to maintain their mining expertise, even if they decide to stop specific exploration at home.

Looking ahead, Wyart-Remy is concerned that indicators put forward by Brussels to measure efficiency are not adequate as they don't reflect the environmental impact of raw materials in general or of the materials encapsulated in imported and/or exported goods.

“So Malta and Luxembourg will look like the most resource-efficient countries of the EU, because they do not have a manufacturing industry at all and they will import everything,” she said.

Wyart-Remy is also concerned about a key indicator proposed by the European Commission to measure resource efficiency, which divides a country’s GDP by its domestic material consumption (DMC).

This, she believes, would not provide a realistic picture.

“We have relatively low-price commodities, so how can we express the functionality we fulfil, how can we express how essential we are for some applications, how can we express the whole value chain life cycle? We are not yet there, and GDP/DMC certainly is not appropriate,” she concluded.

More like this