‘Cynical’ EU blamed for 100,000 workplace-related cancers

Detecting chemical, biological threats

Detecting chemical and biological threats, at Sandia Labs. The tiny detectors have broadened the scope of chemical targets for Sandia’s microanalytical detection technology to toxic industrial chemicals, biological volatiles, greenhouse gases and more. [Sandia Labs/Flickr]

The European Commission’s drive to simplify legislation for businesses – the Better Regulation Agenda – has come under fire from trade unions for blocking EU laws that could save thousands of lives per year.

Laurent Vogel, a senior researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), said that more than 100,000 workers were dying from work-related cancers each year, and blamed the European Commission for inaction.

The staggering figure cited by Vogel is official data coming from the EU health and safety agency, based in Bilbao, Spain. And it is probably underestimated, he claims.

“100,000 deaths could be perfectly avoided. And the reality is above this figure, because it does not include the cases of cancers caused by endocrine disruptors,” said Vogel who was speaking at a EURACTIV Institute workshop held last week (1 July)

According to Vogel, the Commission’s push for ‘Better Regulation’, which aims at simplifying administrative rules for businesses, is effectively blocking attempts to protect workers who suffer from exposure to toxic chemicals in their daily jobs.

‘Paralysis by analysis’

“We have been discussing the revision of the carcinogens directive for the last ten years,” lamented Vogel, claiming that ‘Better Regulation’ “has completely paralysed the process”.

“It is paralysis by analysis,” he said, denouncing a “cynical show” where business lobby groups request the Commission to conduct endless impact assessment studies before any new legislation can be considered.

“The recent scandal on the Endocrine Disruptors policy is a clear example of that,” Vogel said. “It gives you the real meaning of the nice words ‘better regulation’. They are used to paralyse any regulatory initiative when industrial lobbies just ask you to do so.”

According to trade unions, there is “a dramatic increase” in breast, prostate and other cancers caused by endocrine disruptors, which Vogel said are linked with workplace exposure to endocrine disruptors.

Vogel pointed the finger at BusinessEurope, the powerful Brussels-based trade association representing the interests of European employers, mainly large companies. In a report published in May this year, transparency campaigners accused the Commission and the chemicals industry for actively seeking to slow down work on the definition of criteria for regulating hormone disrupting chemicals.

Commission, chemicals lobby deny delaying tactics over hormone disruptors

The European Commission and the chemicals industry have rejected claims, revealed by leaked emails in a new NGO report, that they actively sought to slow down work on the definition of criteria for regulating hormone disrupting chemicals.

But Vogel’s accusations are causing unease in the business community, with some industrial sectors refusing to be labelled as “bad lobbyists”.

Guy Thiran, Director General of Eurometaux, said non-ferrous metal producers were ready to implement whatever rules are being imposed on them, including binding exposure limit values on workers exposed to carcinogens like asbestos or lead.

The trouble, he said, is that employers are confused about which set of rules to apply in the workplace. He pointed to duplications between the EU’s REACH law on chemicals and other rules related to workplace safety, saying it was often unclear which ones they should implement.

REACH and workplace safety

“What we really want is that EU regulations are articulated properly so that there is no duplication, no inconsistencies,” Thiran told the EURACTIV workshop event last week. In many instances, he claimed, “there is an existing regulation on safety at the workplace that companies know well and are willing to implement”.

Thiran was speaking on behalf of a cross-industry initiative for Better Regulation in chemicals management, which argues against applying the notoriously burdensome REACH authorisation process to substances that are exclusively handled in the workplace.

“We believe that the authorisation should not be considered as the preferred option when potential risks can be more effectively addressed by workplace-specific legislation,” the alliance said in a position paper published in March.

Surprisingly, the cross-industry alliance argues in favour of “establishing a protective EU-wide occupational exposure limit (OEL)” on some hazardous chemicals, saying it could prove more effective and significantly less costly than going through the REACH authorisation process.

“REACH Authorisation aims to increase the push towards substitution of substances. However, the replacement of carcinogens and mutagens and of hazardous substances is already foreseen, if feasible, under existing workplace legislation,” said the alliance, whose long list of signatories includes the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU, and the European Aluminium Association (EAA).

Adopted in 2006, the REACH regulation requires chemical manufacturers to register the 100,000 or so substances currently on the market and submit them for safety screening and subsequent authorisation. Those that are considered to pose an unacceptable threat to human health or the environment may be phased out and eventually replaced, according to the ‘no data no market’ principle.

Protecting workers and consumers

For trade unions, however, REACH and workplace legislation can live happily together.

“We need market rules like REACH or the pesticides regulation,” said Vogel, underlining the benefits such laws bring to consumers and workers alike. But “we need also workers protection rules”, he added, arguing with Thiran that the two “should be articulated and consistent” with each other.

Vogel stressed that binding limit values on exposure to some chemicals “are not sufficient” to protect workers from exposure to hazardous substances. “For instance, if we take the existing binding limit values, even if they are fully respected, they are still causing cancers,” he said.

Thiran did not dispute Vogel’s allegation, saying the debate was not about REACH or workplace legislation but about how the two interact. One of the key demands from industry, he stressed, is that future decisions on new occupational emission limit values are based on solid scientific evidence, in line with the Commission’s Better Regulation Agenda.

Data lacking

Evidence is precisely what’s lacking, however.

Data on workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals is currently collected in the CARcinogen EXposure (CAREX) database, an initiative of the World Health Organisation. But European funding for CAREX abruptly dried up in 2004, just months after the REACH proposal was put on the table. The database is now being updated only by Canada and some Caribbean countries.

“The result is that there has been no update on the data” for Europe since 2004, despite a rise in the number of identified carcinogens – form 139 to 230 today –, Vogel said. “At the time, the Commission gave no explanation of the reasons which prompted it to stop the financing,” he pointed out, suggesting that the EU executive bowed to pressure from powerful interest groups.

In the absence of a Europe-wide database, the monitoring of exposures to chemical carcinogens is left to national registries, whose reliability can vary considerably. “They do not cover even nearly all relevant carcinogens and underreporting is very likely,” said the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in a 2014 report.

“On the whole, the information on occupational exposure to carcinogens in Europe is outdated and incomplete,” the report concluded, calling for an urgent update of the CAREX database.

Crucially, such patchy evidence would make the Commission particularly vulnerable to attacks from lobbyists when proposing new exposure limits on chemical carcinogens.

“Any discussion should be based on evidence and science,” confirmed Giuseppina Luvarà, an official in charge of REACH at the Commission’s directorate for the internal market, entrepreneurship and industry (DG GROW).

At the European Commission, scientific input is provided by the Scientific Committee for Occupational Exposure Limits (SCOEL), she said. However, defining new limit values on carcinogens has proved nearly impossible. Only three have been adopted since the directive on the protection of workers against carcinogens was voted 25 years ago, Vogel pointed out. And even when they are adopted, those limit values are usually the result of “a compromise” between workers’ health protection needs and “economic pressure” from industries struggling to keep their costs within reasonable limits, he said.

In other words, environmental laws like REACH and the pesticide regulation are still indispensable and complementary to occupational safety laws. “In my view, there is no duplication between workers protection legislation and REACH,” Vogel said.

Common understanding

Still, the Commission acknowledges that the relation between REACH and workplace safety laws merits clarification.

“One difficulty is the authorisation under REACH and the parallel obligations industries have under OSH,” said Luvarà, referring to the EU’s Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) legislation, which are currently being reviewed.

Speaking at the EURACTIV workshop, she said the Helsinki-based European Chemical Agency (ECHA) will attempt to clarify the relation, hopefully next year.

“The Commission will give a mandate to ECHA and SCOEL by the end of July to explore the convergence” between the two sets of rules, Luvarà said. “Depending of the outcome of this work the Commission (DG Employment, DG Grow and DG Environment) will write a common understanding paper on the interface between REACH and OSH,” she said.

If all goes smoothly, a “common understanding” can be reached by the end of 2016, she said.

REACH: A test case for better regulation?

With the adoption of the Better Regulation Agenda on 19th May, the European Commission is taking first concrete steps in the definition of its policy.

Adopted in 2006, the REACH regulation requires chemical manufacturers to register the 100,000 or so substances currently on the market and submit them for safety screening and subsequent authorisation, according to the ‘no data, no market’ principle.

Those that are considered to pose an unacceptable threat to human health or the environment may be phased out and eventually replaced.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has published a list of dozens of chemicals considered of Very High Concern to human health or the environment, which is being updated on a regular basis.

But many of the identified exposure to chemicals are generated at work and are therefore not covered by REACH. These include for example diesel exhaust, welding fumes, silica and endotoxins, according to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (OSHA).

Preventive measures may however be adopted under REACH according to exposure scenarios identified in the extended safety data sheets (SDSs) of the regulated substances. This information on the safe use of carcinogens should also be forwarded to downstream users, who, in turn, may promote and improve prevention, according to OSHA.

  • End July 2015: Commission to give a mandate for clarifying relations between REACH and occupational safety laws (OSH). The mandate will be handed to the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) and the Scientific Committee for Occupational Exposure Limits (SCOEL).
  • By end 2016: ECHA and SCOEL expected to agree on a “common understanding” paper.

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