Slow progress on chemical standards in Europe, as industry dominates

Tighter rules on certain reproductive and cancer hazards at work have been agreed by a key European Parliament committee, but new evidence suggests that overall the European Union’s standard setting process is being undermined by covert chemical industry influence.

On 28 February 2017, members of the parliament’s employment and social affairs committee accepted an amendment that would bring reproductive hazards under the scope of a revised law. The MEPs also accepted that an occupational exposure limit for crystalline silica of 50 micrograms per m3 should be phased in, half the level sought by the Commission and industry lobbyists.

An exposure limit for cancer causing chromium VI of 1 microgram/m3 was also accepted, in stark contrast to the 25 microgram level proposed by the Commission and the industry. A tighter wood dust standard was also accepted.

The report was presented by Marita Ulvskog, a Socialist and Democrat group Euro MP and vice-chair of the employment and social affairs committee. Speaking after the vote, which returned a resounded 38 to 6 majority in favour of the amendments, she said: “The committee is proposing to widen the scope of the EU legislation on the protection of workers from carcinogens or mutagens at work to include reprotoxic substances.”

She added: “We also need to ensure that workers exposed to these harmful substances benefit from lifelong monitoring. It does not matter how long you have been exposed to these substances, you can still develop life-threatening diseases long after you have ended your job.”

According to the safety unit on the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), the vote by MEPs was an ‘important victory’ for unions. But it added: “This vote is only a step towards the adoption of a directive that would save thousands of lives each year from the minimalist proposals that had been made by the Commission and had the support of industrial lobbies.”

The full European Parliament will vote on the amendments in April, with the agreement of the Council of Ministers then required.

Concerns over the European Union’s standard setting process, however, have heightened after it was revealed experts with industry links dominate the committee advising the European Commission on the occupational exposure limits for hazardous substances.

A report published on 24 February in the French daily newspaper Le Monde revealed that 15 out of the 22 members of the Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limit Values (SCOEL) have ties with companies in sectors likely to be affected by the Commission’s plans to adopt new occupational exposure limits (OELs) for certain carcinogens or mutagens at work. The Le Monde investigation established the links between the 15 SCOEL experts and companies including BASF, Shell and Monsanto or trade lobby groups.

Laurent Vogel of the ETUI’s safety unit said the revelations raise concerns about the credibility of the standard setting process. He told Le Monde: “Excessively high OELs are a shortcut to disaster. Workers wrongly believe that they are protected, whereas in practice such OELs are the equivalent of handing companies a licence to kill.”


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