EESC urges Commission to consider broadening Carcinogens Directive, address women's exposure and reproduction hazards

Introduction of new exposure limits to prevent work-related cancer is welcome, but could be extended to reprotoxic substances and formaldehyde, EESC says

The European Commission should carry out an impact assessment of a possible inclusion of substances which are toxic for reproduction in the scope of its Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (CMD), the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) said at its May plenary session.

While welcoming the opening of a three-fold process to revise the CMD for the first time in more than 10 years, the EESC recommended that the last batch of the revision, planned for 2018, should pay greater attention to occupational carcinogenic exposures affecting women.

"We are pleased that further to decades of silence, the Commission came forward in 2016 with three new measures," Marjolijn Bulk, the rapporteur for the opinion "Protection of workers from carcinogens or mutagens at work", told the EESC plenary.

She referred to the Commission's proposal to update the CMD by introducing binding occupational exposure limit values (BOELs) for substances considered to be carcinogenic or toxic. The first proposal for 13 BOELs was made in May 2016, with two batches to follow in 2017 and 2018.

Ms Bulk said the opinion looked at the second CMD proposal, published in January 2017, which introduced BOELs for five additional carcinogenic substances: epichlorohydrine (ECH), ethylene dibromide (EDB), ethylene dichloride (EDC), 4.4'methylenedianiline (MDA) and trichloroethylene (TCE).

The EESC concluded the proposed BOELs would contribute to "reducing the work-related cancer burden" for all five substances but suggested that the BOEL for TCE should be even lower.

In agreement with the common position of Europe's social partners, EESC also recommended that a BOEL be adopted for formaldehyde as a potentially carcinogenic substance.

Considering the review of the CMD to be "an ongoing process", Ms Bulk said the EESC was urging the Commission that "in this batch and in the 2018 batch, far more attention should be paid to the position of women". 

"There are types of cancer that affect women a lot more and this is something which needs to be focused on a lot more, particularly when it comes to certain occupations," she said, maintaining there are many types of work in which women are concentrated, such as, for example, cleaning, hairdressing or health, involving exposure to carcinogens which are neglected.

The conclusions adopted by the EESC called on the Commission to improve the common methodology used to determine the BOELs in the CMD, in consultation with social partners, Member States and other stakeholders.

Ms Bulk said the Commission operated on a "case-by-case" basis and differences between Member States were huge. "Some of the member states have defined BOELs for more than a hundred different CMRs, other for fewer than ten," she said, adding this created difficulties for companies operating in different countries with varying standards.

The CMD sets only general minimum requirements while employers must identify and assess risks and prevent exposure where risks occur.

BOELS must be defined on the basis of scientific and statistical evidence, taking into account factors such as feasibility and the possibilities for measuring exposure levels, the EESC said.

According to the opinion, a good example for this is a risk-based approach used in the Netherlands and Germany as it helps to define BOELs by taking into account the level of risk as the primary determinant of a social compromise.

Around twenty million people in the EU are exposed to carcinogens at work and almost ten percent of an estimated 1.314 million annual cancer deaths in the EU result from occupational-related cancer. This puts cancer at the top of the list of work-related deaths in the EU. The costs of this amount to more than 334 billion EUR per year.

For all persons who have been exposed to carcinogens at their place of work, the EESC considers it necessary to set up programmes of life-long health surveillance, within the framework of national social security or public health systems.

As part of measures to improve the protection of workers from carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxic substances, the EESC also urged Member States to ensure that labour inspectorates have sufficient financial and human resources to carry out their duties

The EESC also urged the Commission to take into account the findings of the Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure limits (SCOEL) regarding diesel engine exhausts (DEE) when establishing a legal definition of DEE.

SCOEL has published ten occupational exposure limit reports, including diesel engine exhausts and formaldehyde.