Work-related cancers: a mere 18 substances regulated
This is an English translation of the second article in a two-part series originally published in Le Monde, Friday, February 24, 2017. Published here with the permission of the author, Stéphane Horel. You can read the first article here.
The new occupational exposure standards for carcinogens proposed by the European Commission, deemed highly inadequate by the unions, are in line with industry’s wishes.
Hexavalent chromium. This chemical is so toxic that Hollywood made a film about it. However, hexavalent chromium is not only the topic of a fictional feature film by Steven Soderbergh that won Julia Roberts a best actress Oscar in Erin Brockovich in 2000. More importantly, it is a carcinogenic chemical to which 1 million workers in the European Union are exposed.
To this day, the European legislation offering protection against this type of hazardous product covers a grand total of three chemicals (benzene, vinyl chloride and wood dust) plus asbestos and lead. Whereas some EU Member States have already adopted ‘exposure limit values’ for around 100 substances, others have few or none at all. Consequently, the revision of the EU directive “on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work” is crucial for workers active in those countries that lack adequate regulation. As it happens, hexavalent chromium (or chromium VI) is not regulated at all in five EU countries, including Germany.
Accordingly, despite the European Commission’s claim that this revision, announced more than a decade ago, but finally only undertaken in May 2016, constitutes a priority, it is merely dashing many hopes. And the extent of disappointment felt is equivalent to the scale of the challenge faced, namely 100,000 work-related cancer fatalities in Europe every year.
In addition to the human cost, which is inestimable for the relatives of those killed by the disease, work-related cancers represent a financial burden on society totalling €334 billion, according to a benchmark estimate by the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM).
The unions requested that the limit value for crystalline silica should be 0.05 mg/m3 , the industry – 0.1 mg/m3.
The Commission opted for 0.1 mg/m3.
Wood dust? The unions wanted 1 mg/m3, the industry wanted 3 mg/m3, and the Commission opted for 3 mg/m3 .
Butadiene? The unions wanted 0.5 parts per million (ppm), the industry wanted 1 ppm and the Commission opted for 1 ppm.
And so it goes on.
In two stages, the Commission only ended up proposing exposure limit values for 18 carcinogenic products to which more than 20 million workers are exposed, instead of the 25 initially promised. The Netherlands, which worked to bring about the revision, wanted to include 50. The list of trade unions included 71 substances.
In particular, the unions are protesting against the Commission’s last-minute decision not to include diesel fumes. After all, this second most serious cause of work-related cancer (after asbestos) affects 3 million workers.
This lack of legislation will cause “230,000 deaths in the European Union between 2010 and 2069”, emphasises Laurent Vogel, a researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), citing Commission statistics. However, the main target of his criticism is the limit values themselves, which are sometimes very much higher than those already in force in some Member States.
The most spectacular example of this is the infamous chromium VI. Acknowledged as toxic since the end of the 19th century, chromium VI has only been classified as a known human carcinogen since 1990. Used exclusively in industry, this substance does not exist at all in nature. Workers are exposed to it during manufacturing or machining processes, but it is not present in end products and does not pose any risk to consumers. Welding, for example, emits chromium VI. However, its main use is for working leather and also some metal objects, which can be soaked in a bath of chromium VI to make them look chrome-plated. The main products in question are taps, caps of perfume bottles and lipstick tubes, where chromium is essentially used for decorative purposes.
“A killer substance”
In France, the exposure limit value for chromium VI is 0.001 milligrams per cubic metre of air (mg/m3). The Commission is proposing 0.025 mg/m3. This is a value 25 times higher, which ‘guarantees’ one incidence of lung cancer per 10 workers exposed, according to calculations by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). That’s a high price to pay for a shiny spray cap, especially since tested and authorised alternatives already exist for most applications.
“Shouldn’t we accept a slightly different finish to remove this substance which kills people?”, asks Anna Lennquist, a toxicologist at ChemSec, a non-governmental organisation that campaigns for the substitution of hazardous products.
How can such a discrepancy be explained? The starting point for determining the limit values proposed by the Commission was recommendations made by the Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits (SCOEL). According to Le Monde’s investigation, 15 of the 22 experts on this official committee have links with the sectors involved. Intensive lobbying by industrial companies did the rest. This is clearly documented in a report by the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), a Brussels-based organisation specialising in exposing corporate lobbying in the EU. Published in December 2016, this report shows that the values proposed by the Commission are identical to those that the industry called for and afford less protection than those demanded by the unions. In any event, none of them are any stricter than the proposed values put forward by SCOEL at the beginning of the process.
The unions requested that the limit value for crystalline silica should be 0.05 mg/m3 , the industry – 0.1 mg/m3. The Commission opted for 0.1 mg/m3. Wood dust? The unions wanted 1 mg/m3, the industry wanted 3 mg/m3, and the Commission opted for 3 mg/m3 . Butadiene? The unions wanted 0.5 parts per million (ppm), the industry wanted 1 ppm and the Commission opted for 1 ppm. And so it goes on.
The next step in the revision of the directive is a vote in the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs on Tuesday, February 28. The industrial players have let it be known that they would reject any additional constraints. In a letter to which Le Monde was given access, nine sectoral associations, including the European employers’ organisation BusinessEurope, say they “oppose” lower limit values that “will not necessarily provide better protection for workers” and could, they claim, “jeopardise the balance between scientific evidence and feasibility”.
This revision, according to the Commission’s draft directive, is consistent with the objective set out by Commission President Juncker and inspired by the bank ratings system of a ‘Triple A social Europe’.
By: Stéphane Horel