More than two decades after asbestos was widely banned, new laws about the substance are few and far between. Proposals by the European Union then were both unexpected and highly welcome for many observers, both in the EU and further afield. Unfortunately for everyone with a stake in regulating the substance, the latest news isn’t positive.

The new laws were first proposed in 2022 by the EU Commission, with the intention of reducing the more than 90,000 deaths from asbestos-related diseases in Europe each year. The ‘asbestos-free future’ plan aimed to improve asbestos safety in a number of areas: by supporting victims of asbestos exposure, protecting workers against further exposure, and addressing the asbestos currently present in buildings.

Unfortunately, the push to further regulate asbestos has ground to a halt, with no resolution in sight. After being announced in September 2022, the final proposal was expected in mid-2023, but has not even been mentioned since. A coalition of unions has written to the Belgian government to demand action, claiming that action has been stalled by the Directorate General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW), as they may feel that further action will be a burden on businesses.

Complacency around asbestos

The status of the legislation reflects an ongoing tension within the EU and many governments: balancing economic considerations with action on climate change. The EU’s aim to double renovation rates across the continent by 2030 is designed to meet climate targets through the use of insulation, heat pumps, and other eco-friendly design features. However, this means renovating a huge amount of old commercial buildings and housing stock, creating a potentially massive issue with asbestos exposure.

Action in the UK may have stalled for similar reasons. A report by the Work and Pensions committee in 2022 was dismissed by the government, supposedly on the grounds that setting a 40-year deadline for asbestos removal from all public and commercial buildings (as was suggested) would increase exposure rates. Yet a more realistic reason for ignoring this lengthy deadline seems to be that it simply isn’t a vote winner, and would place an added financial burden on businesses and the government at a time of stretched budgets.

Authorities and campaigners are also battling general complacency. In the UK, for instance, asbestos has almost been painted as a solved problem, rather than something that is becoming more dangerous. As general awareness of asbestos falls, asbestos-containing materials that have been maintained in place are ageing and degrading, increasing the risk of exposure. At the same time, many builders and renovators lack sufficient expertise in asbestos identification and removal, and many homeowners do not even know that asbestos is present in their homes.

Battling for asbestos removal

For its part, the EU has stated that the legislation is still on the way. In a response to EU Observer, a commission spokesperson stated that “The commission continues to work on a legislative proposal, which we aim to propose by the end of this legislative term.” The delay, according to them, has been “due to difficulties and complexities in gathering the data relevant to [the] proposal”. To read between the lines, it seems negotiations are still ongoing, and the commission is still deciding what level of action is viable based on costs and the proliferation of asbestos.

Every day and every second this decision remains in limbo risks further exposure. As we’ve pointed out before, there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, meaning that even one fibre of asbestos can lead to a deadly illness years down the line. The buck is easy to pass on asbestos because of the long latency time of asbestos-related diseases – sometimes 30 years or more – but the long-term damage to individuals and the healthcare system will be massive. And asbestos-containing materials are now on a precipice that could soon snowball into a raft of new exposures.

While asbestos is much less widespread than it was 50 years ago, the state of asbestos is much worse. Products manufactured and installed prior to asbestos bans are now ageing to the point that they risk fibres escaping into the air, and where damage from weather or general wear and tear is more likely to occur. This renders the current approach from the HSE – to monitor and maintain asbestos – increasingly more dangerous. Monitoring asbestos could mean inspections months or years apart, risking that the asbestos degrades to the point that it causes serious, irreversible harm.

The politics of asbestos

A relevant factor in the approaches of both the UK and EU is upcoming elections. The UK General Election is anticipated to fall in the autumn, while the EU Parliament election has led to a surge in right-wing MEPs. Both elections may create more certainty and facilitate long-term decisions such as action on asbestos. However, the current political climate and strength of these pro-business factions in the EU may lead the Commission further away from sweeping asbestos reforms.

The expected election of Keir Starmer in the UK may be more promising for asbestos legislation, but it’s also unlikely to be near the top of his list. Asbestos removal may be a vote-winner for unions, but it’s not their top priority either, in a period where public sector workers have struggled to achieve concessions on pay. Labour has also taken a business-first approach which would clash with requirements for asbestos removal, and is also looking to find more funding for other election pledges.

The one glimmer of hope for asbestos activists in the UK is that the deadline for asbestos removal may not be terminal for a new government. Setting the 40-year deadline recommended by the parliamentary committee wouldn’t please many business interests, but it would be far enough away that significant action may not be required under this government. It may also dovetail with necessary work to meet climate targets – something Labour have pledged to meet with a range of climate policies.

The time it has already taken to take further action on asbestos removal is both understandable and unforgivable. A battle that affects millions of people is currently being fought primarily by activists and a handful of legislators, who realise the damage asbestos is still causing and will cause to both people’s health and already-struggling healthcare services. With luck, upcoming elections – and better asbestos awareness – will lend fresh impetus to these laws, and see a wave of action to eliminate asbestos-containing materials altogether.