On 24 June 2015, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the Committee of the Regions (CoR) heard alarming testimony from some of Europe's top experts on asbestos. From social housing to Royal housing, no property and person is immune. One expert reported during the conference on soon to be published figures placing the total number of estimated deaths in Europe at 47,000 per year, 50% higher than previously thought and double those related to road accidents. Children and teachers in schools, DIY enthusiasts and maintenance workers are among the new risk groups joining the long list of workers and members of the public increasingly at risk from asbestos infested buildings across Europe.
Although banned in 2005, asbestos is still found in many places, such as ships, trains, machinery, tunnels and in pipes in public and private water distribution networks. Asbestos was used extensively in buildings erected between 1961 and 1990, with millions of tonnes still present in buildings, not only putting building and maintenance workers at risk but potentially anybody present or occupying the property. For the larger Member States, asbestos removal programmes could cost up to 10-15 billion Euros per country which is equivalent to the cost of building one Channel Tunnel for each of them at today's prices. Over 80% of schools in one country alone, the United Kingdom, still contain asbestos. Also alarming is the emerging risk for everyday consumers, either doing a bit of DIY or exposed to asbestos contaminated consumer goods, such as thermos flasks, slipping through EU Market Surveillance controls.
According to the EESC's asbestos co-rapporteur, Enrico Gibellieri, "Member States and the European Institutions need to take action now to head off this emerging public health crisis. National Action Plans need to be implemented and the European Commission should prioritize its response to this major risk to public health across all policy areas. We are talking about a lot more than traditionally exposed factory workers, now extending our concern to the children in our schools, the people working in our hospitals and public buildings and anyone living in a house, which affects just about everybody."
The conference "Freeing Europe safely from asbestos" was a follow-up action to the EESC's Opinion on Asbestos which was published in February. The EESC Opinion urges the European Commission and Member States to follow the example of some Member States in establishing Registers of Buildings containing Asbestos and developing action plans for safe asbestos removal. The Committee also urged the European Commission to take advantage of the opportunity to link safe asbestos removal with its programme on energy efficiency renovation of buildings.
The European Commission and Member States should also improve the market surveillance against imports of product containing asbestos in the EU.
Yoomi Renström, Chair of the CoR Social Policy Commission, urged for the review of the existing EU legislative framework and pleaded for an end to the blame game between different levels of governance. "Regional and local authorities have a key role to play when implementing measures to address asbestos-related challenges but they must be given the appropriate resources to do so", she concluded.
Mauro D'Attis, CoR Rapporteur on the EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2014-2020, strongly regretted the fact that asbestos removal is not high on the EU political agenda, emphasising the lack of political will to deal with an issue that kills thousands of people annually. "We need a rigorous analysis of existing risks and an effective model for registering asbestos presence in buildings", he underlined.
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