Silica carcinogens: EU approves strict measures

By IM Staff
Published: Friday, 27 October 2017

The European parliament has introduced new binding limits to reduce workers' exposure to crystalline silica dust, requiring industrial sectors to adapt their operating practices to comply with the directive, IM correspondent Liz Newmark reports

The European Parliament approved on Wednesday October 25 a binding workplace limit saying mineral workers should not breathe air with more than 0.1 mg/m3 (milligrams per cubic meter) of respirable crystalline silica (RCS) particles present.

This health and safety rule is part of a revision of an existing European Union (EU) directive 2004/37/EC on protecting workers from carcinogens and mutagens.

The new rules also specify that the European Commission "will evaluate the need to modify" this silica in air limit during a future evaluation of how the law is being implemented.

This stems from pressure to tighten this limit still further, with the EU executive’s Scientific Committee for Occupational Exposure Limits (SCOEL), backed by the Parliament’s lead negotiator - or rapporteur - for the current legislative discussions, Swedish socialist MEP Marita Ulvskog, having advised a stricter 0.05 mg/m3 limit.

A key product for the industrial minerals sector, RCS will be added as a "process-generating substance", meaning dust created by mining, cutting or crushing of materials such as concrete, bricks or rocks.

Crystalline silica in the form of quartz or cristobalite dust is a leading cause of occupational lung cancer, a February 2017 European Parliament briefing note stated.

The directive approved by MEPs at this week’s Strasbourg plenary session, by 540 votes to six against, with 119 abstentions, sets exposure limits for a further 11 carcinogens (including crystalline silica) in addition to those covered by the existing directive.

These are 1,2-epoxypropane, 1,3-butadiene, 2-nitroproprane, acrylamide, bromoethylene, vinyl bromide, chromium (VI) compounds, ethylene oxide, hydrazine and o-toluidine.

Assuming Wednesday’s vote stands in later discussions, there will also be a 0.3f/ml (fibers per milliliter) limit for refractory ceramic fibers. Since these are used in dryers and kilns, this is also relevant for the minerals sector.

The new legislation further revises exposure limits for two substances already on the list: hardwood dusts produced by cutting or pulverising wood and vinyl chloride monomer – mainly used to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

In Ulvskog’s report on the directive, MEPs also said the Commission must assess the possibility of including reprotoxic substances (those affecting sexual function and fertility) in the directive’s "dangerous substances" list, which is a priority list of workplace carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxic substances, by the first quarter of 2019.

MEPs also agreed that national EU health and safety authorities must survey the health of workers in their jurisdictions long after they have left the workplace.

The directive will now go for a second reading; Belgian MEP Claude Rolin is the main negotiator on behalf of the Parliament’s largest centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group.

This will allow the EU Council of Ministers, representing member states, to have its say and propose changes - as with parliament, it has veto rights over the law.

Once a final text is agreed, the new rules will be published in the EU Official Journal and enter into force 20 days after publication. Then member states will have two years to transpose the directive into their national laws.  

"[The revised directive] will protect the health of millions of workers in almost all sectors, especially those employed in construction, wood-related industries, the paper or chemical industry," Ulvskog said.

The European Industrial Minerals Association (IMA-Europe) gave a cautious welcome to the vote on the law.

"This legislation will impact the sector and our downstream users as there will be compliance costs associated with the requirements of the directive," IMA-Europe secretary general Roger Doome told Industrial Minerals.

Certainly, the Commission has accepted the revised directive will be expensive to enact. A May 2016 Commission impact assessment accompanying the proposal estimated total costs to business of introducing the 0.1mg/m3 CRS value at €3.5 billion ($4.11 billion) in the 2010-2069 period.

"However, the prime interest of the concerned industries is worker protection and the industry welcomes any measure which would improve workers’ health," Doome also said.

The legislation would not affect the production of industrial minerals nor working hours but it could trigger adaptations in the factory conditions to comply with the directive, he said.

"[But] to a large extent, the measures have already been integrated by the industrial minerals and their supply chain," Doome told Industrial Minerals. "Bigger adaptations are expected in the construction sector."

"Industrial minerals producers are prepared to help their downstream users in reducing workers’ exposure to process-generated respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and to inform them of the relevant good practices for their particular situations," he added. "This will become an integral part of their product stewardship policies."

Notably, the association supports the 0.1 mg/m3 limit for RCS, calling it "the main concern for the minerals sector."

It also welcomed the directive’s acknowledgement of NEPSI, a 2006 agreement initiated by IMA-Europe on "Workers’ Health Protection Through the Good Handling and Use of Crystalline Silica and Products Containing It."

"This reinforces our commitment to continue working together with NEPSI social partners to enhance worker health protection and ensure that the NEPSI agreement continues to play a key role in facilitating compliance with this new European law," Doome said.

But IMA-Europe will continue to contest the call to include substances harmful for reproduction into the directive.

"The provisions of this directive are not intended for substances with a threshold effect such as reprotoxic agents," Doome said, adding that including reprotoxic substances would necessitate "a complete reshaping of the directive."

For instance, where substances are shown to harm reproduction, the law would spark requirements to look for substitute chemicals and minerals, as well as to create closed systems creating no external pollution.

"[This] would not be appropriate and legitimate in working conditions below the threshold," he said.

In a January (2017) joint reaction to the parliament’s proposals at that time, the association had also criticized the planned obligation that employers conduct health surveillance on its workers even after they have left the company.

In a parliament briefing note, cancer is stated as the leading cause - at 53% - of work-related deaths in the EU, with around 20 million workers exposed to harmful elements.

The Commission’s explanatory memorandum to the proposal said the proposed 0.1mg/m3 limit value for RCS could prevent 99,000 cancer deaths by 2069; the construction sector accounts for almost 70% of all workers exposed to this substance.

But many MEPs want the stricter 0.05mg/m3 level. In her report, Ulvskog highlighted that, according to the Commission’s impact assessment, this value "would result in 107,350 fewer deaths in 2010-2069 as compared to the current scenario."

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