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Reducing the asbestos exposure limit: a tough act to follow

Written by Nick Garland on 22/06/2023

I’ve previously written about the ongoing standoff between the European Parliament, EU member states, and the European Commission regarding the exposure limit for asbestos. Well, that standoff is set to enter a new phase at the upcoming interinstitutional talks with the European Council.

To recap, the Commission has proposed a reduction in the exposure limit of asbestos at work to 10 times lower than the current value. That would mean reducing it from 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre (f/cm³) to 0.01 f/cm³. But for the European Parliament’s employment committee (EMPL), this is not enough – they are insistent on a 100-fold reduction, to 0.001 f/cm³, after a transitional period of four years.

In the UK there isn’t an exposure limit for asbestos, but it’s analogous to our Control Limit, which is also 0.1 f/cm³. We have another limit called the Clearance Indicator. That’s the level that an asbestos enclosure must pass before it can be handed back, and that’s set at 0.01 f/cm³.

The lines are fairly firmly drawn with the EU ministers of employment setting out their position in early December last year, which was to agree with the Commission’s 0.01 f/cm³ proposal. But Danish MEP Nikolaj Villumsen wants the Parliament to keep its stronger position.

“Sadly, we know that some member states are satisfied with a limit value 10 times as high as what we propose, with outdated methods of measuring and less stringent approaches to training and certification,” he said. “This is what we will be up against next.”

This matters to the UK because, if the EU reduces its exposure limit, it will be very difficult for us not to follow. But I’ve previously touched on a more fundamental problem if the limit chosen is 0.001 f/cm³. There’s currently no equipment or testing technique available that can do personal monitoring tests at these levels. The technology simply isn’t ready to support them.

Furthermore, the masks that asbestos removal workers use have a protection factor of 40. This would mean that to stay within the lower 0.001 f/cm³ exposure limit, any method used to remove asbestos must not release concentrations above 0.04 f/cm³. I’m not aware of any working method that would reliably achieve this.

There are two things at play here: what is safe to hand back to the normal users of the property, and what’s safe for the workers actually removing asbestos in enclosures. It’s concerning that the implications to asbestos removal appear not to have been thought through.

It’s vital to protect workers and other users of the built environment, and I can see a lower exposure limit is a positive move. More stringent cleaning and more accurate testing will be able to achieve this. But, how will these new levels affect the removal operatives themselves?  Protection technology improves all the time, and perhaps the lower limit will force some kind of breakthrough, but in the absence of that it’ll be a hard limit for the industry to meet.

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