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The EU Directive on asbestos at work: As the European Commission proposes an update, will the UK respond?

Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, was once hailed for its heat resistance, strength, and insulating properties. However, its detrimental health effects, including asbestosis, pleural thickening, and the aggressive cancer mesothelioma, have since been recognised.

In England and Wales, the most recent Regulations governing the management and control of asbestos are the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, which came into force on 06 April 2012. The primary objective of the Regulations is to safeguard individuals from the health risks associated with occupational asbestos exposure.

The regulations set a control limit for asbestos at 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre of air (0.1 f/cm³). However, it is crucial to understand that this control limit does not denote a 'safe' level of exposure, and where an activity that could lead to asbestos exposure takes place, measures must be taken to reduce any exposure to the lowest level reasonably practicable.

The European Commission has proposed an update to the EU Directive on asbestos at work. This proposal aims to significantly lower the exposure level to no more than 0.01 asbestos fibres per cubic centimetre (f/cm³), which is ten times lower than the current limit. This move is in line with the Commission's broader approach to better protect individuals and the environment from asbestos and ensure an asbestos-free future.

Despite the ban on the importation, supply, and use of asbestos in 1999, many buildings constructed or refurbished before 2000 in the UK still contain asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).

 As many as 1.5 million UK buildings might contain asbestos, and as these buildings age and fall into disrepair, there's a risk of asbestos being released into the environment.

Given its departure from the European Union, it remains to be seen how the UK will respond to the changes proposed by the European Commission to lower the exposure level, but with the many public buildings that contain asbestos, and the current dilemma of crumbling concrete in schools, the pressure is certainly on the government to act. The health of countless individuals depends on it.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people and families affected by mesothelioma and other diseases at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section.