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Better protection against cancer-causing chemicals 'could save 100,000 lives'

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Better protection against cancer-causing chemicals 'could save 100,000 lives'

Photo by William M. Plate Jr

(BRUSSELS) - New EU rules to limit exposure to 13 cancer-causing chemicals at the workplace could save 100,000 lives in the next 50 years, says Employment Commissioner Marianne Thyssen.

The Commission is proposing changes to the EU's Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive, specifically new or amended limit values which set maximum concentrations for the presence of a chemical carcinogen in the workplace air.

The proposal is based on scientific evidence and follows broad discussions with scientists, employers, workers, Member States' representatives and labour inspectors.

The number of deaths attributed to occupational cancer in the EU is reported to be around 102,000 per year. According to the World Health Organisation, cancer is the second largest cause of death in most developed countries – and in the European Union cancer is the first cause of work-related deaths. 53% of annual of work-related deaths is due to cancer, compared to 28% for circulatory diseases and 6% for respiratory diseases.

To set these limit values for a number of carcinogens under the Directive, the Commission has initiated a scientific and economic assessment of more than 20 priority chemical agents. In the EU around 20 million workers are exposed to at least one of these chemical agents.

Some of the 13 carcinogens, like 'respirable crystalline silica' (RCS), chromium (VI) compounds, hardwood dust or hydrazine, affect very high numbers of workers. For some others there are indications that use patterns may be lower, but those chemicals are considered a priority as the ratio between the number of exposed workers and cancer cases is high.

For the remaining chemical agents the Commission says there is further preparatory work to be done and a proposal covering these will follow by end 2016.

A specific example of a new chemical agent to be added is 'respirable crystalline silica' (RCS), which the Commission proposes to include in the Directive as a 'process generated' substance, meaning dust created by work processes such as mining, quarrying, or tunnelling or cutting, crushing or grinding of silica-containing materials such as concrete, bricks, or rocks. While some companies have good control of airborne concentrations of this chemical, supported by a dedicated social partner agreement, it is nevertheless a leading cause of both the lung disease 'silicosis' and occupational lung cancer. The Commission proposal will protect workers across the EU, including in the construction sector, which represents almost 70% of all workers exposed to 'respirable crystalline silica'.

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