Commission targets cancer-causing agents in new proposal

Workers that come into constant contact with carcinogenic substances, especially in the mining industry, are set to benefit from the Commission's plan. [jasonwoodhead23/Flickr]

Millions of workers are exposed to cancer-causing substances such as quartz and hardwood every day. Now the European Commission is calling for maximum limits, but Brussels risks opening a Pandora’s Box with its proposed regulations. EURACTIV Germany reports.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancer causes 53% of deaths in industrialised countries. Particularly affected are those people for whom the health risks are outweighed by the financial gains, for example, factory and mine workers who are exposed to the substances on a daily basis. A specific example is quartz dust, which is produced by industrial mining and which can cause lung cancer.

Maximum limits vary between EU countries and are even non-existent in certain member states. This has created a system where companies have an incentive to set up shop in countries with lower health standards and protection. Those that provide better and higher working conditions and health standards currently suffer a competitive disadvantage.

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On 14 May, the Commission proposed an initiative under which these diverging health standards would be addressed and a more competitive playing field would be created. The executive intends to list 13 substances which would be subject to EU-wide maximum limits.

“Cancer has immense consequences for workers, their families, industries and society. Our proposal will save 100,000 lives over the next 50 years,” said Social Affairs and Employment Commissioner Marianne Thyssen.

Accordingly, companies should benefit from the stricter rules, given that a healthy employee is generally more productive than a sick one.

Nevertheless, companies and industries fear a loss of revenue, in part because they are worried that consumers will be put off buying any products that contain the substances that will be listed by the Commission. That would ultimately be misguided, as materials such as quartz dust are only released during the manufacturing process and as a result do not pose a threat to consumers.

Often, regulating chemical substances is like running a gauntlet, given that the overriding factor in the EU is the precautionary principle, which allows Brussels to ban anything that may pose a health threat, even if the scientific evidence is not completely conclusive.

Public pressure can often push the lawmakers into making opportunistic decisions. Companies can be hit by high costs when a substance is included on such lists. The manufacturer’s logic can be summed up thus: roadways pose real and significant risks, but driving has not been outlawed.

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Trade unions, however, welcomed the Commission’s proposal, but still see a great deal of work to be done. “Finally the Commission has listened to us, but, the proposed maximum limits are still too lax for certain substances,” said Stéphanie Wouters from the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). The unions also insisted that 15 other substances be included on the same list by the end of the year.

Ultimately, the Commission was accused of doing far too little though: “Instead of merely limiting carcinogenic chemicals, they should be removed and replaced. We also are in dire need of new laws that protect workers from other harmful influences, like nano particles and psychological risks.” Wouters was not enamoured by the Commission’s solution to the problem and accused the EU of being “far from fulfilling its ambitious social agenda”.

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