Chemical limits: Do the EU's new rules on toxic substances at work go far enough?

In partnership with The European Commission
Chemical limits: Do the EU's new rules on toxic substances at work go far enough?
Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Paul Hackett
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Brussels is revising the limit values on lead exposure in the workplace for the first time in 40 years and also introducing new rules for a class of chemical compounds called diisocyanates. But will these new measures ensure workers' safety?

The dangers posed by lead to human health have been known for decades. While the metal is no longer used in our pipes and petrol, it is still widespread and key to our modern world.

Europe uses millions of tonnes of lead each year to make car batteries, high-voltage cables and insulation for energy-efficient buildings. But what happens when the products containing lead reach the end of their lifespan?

Campine is one of Europe's biggest lead recyclers. The firm repurposes huge amounts of the metal at its sites in Belgium and France every year.

‘’We are recycling about 90,000-95,000 tonnes of lead-containing scraps," Willem De Vos, the CEO of Campine, told Euronews at the company's main headquarters in northern Belgium.

De Vos explained that most of the recycled lead products are car batteries, with the plant recycling around 10,000 units per day. 

Campine plays a vital role in reducing lead waste. Exposure to lead-contaminated soil and water near industrial dumping sites can lead to lead poisoning which can be detrimental, especially if young children are exposed.

"If we didn't recycle these batteries, they would end up somewhere in a dump, which is obviously not good. And by the way, the industry needs lead, so we would need to get it from the mines, either in Europe or outside, which is again, not good for the environment,” De Vos added.

Recycling lead: the catch-22

Almost all parts of a lead-acid battery can be recycled, but lead can be released during any stage of the recycling process. While recycling lead is important to meet global demands for refined lead metal, recycling the metal can be a hazardous business and poses clear environmental and health risks.

Consequently, Campine abides by strict safety protocols to ensure the safety of its staff. In addition to wearing protective equipment, employees have to follow clear guidelines. They are also required to take regular blood tests to monitor lead blood concentration. 

Campine's lead exposure limits are well below the EU’s current standards, but the new rules will mean it has to go further.

The new legislation will require employers in the industry to ensure lead concentration is limited to just 15 microgrammes per 100 millilitres of blood from 2026, bringing the occupational exposure limit to one-fifth of the current level. 

“The health effects of lead have been known for a long time. But now we have more data indicating that these health effects also happen and occur at lower exposure levels. So we need to bring these levels down to prevent chronic disorders, like for example, cancer," Lode Godderis, a Professor of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology at KU Leuven-IDEWE told Euronews.

Current preventative measures

Employers in the EU are required to take necessary measures to prevent or reduce exposure to harmful chemicals as laid out by the Regulation, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals Authority (REACH).

This regulation replaced several European directives and regulations with a single system in 2007. REACH seeks to enhance the competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry and allow the free movement of substances on the EU market. It also provides strict guidelines on the environments in which dangerous chemicals can be used.

Better ventilation, rotating work tasks, personal protective equipment, and adequate safety procedures are all encouraged. Pregnant workers who are at risk of exposure must be allowed to change roles during pregnancy to minimise health risks.

In Finland, for example, a statute of the Health Insurance Act ensures that pregnant people are entitled to special maternity leave and an allowance by the Social Insurance Institution if safe work cannot be offered. 

If a role requires exposure to a list of agents considered harmful or requires a level of exposure that might constitute a reproductive health hazard, then the role is not considered safe.

What do the new rules mean for employees?

Those representing workers welcome the new rules but insist they must be enforced across the entirety of the bloc.

Claes-Mikael Ståhl, the Deputy General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation told Euronews that functional trade union reps, labour inspectors and guidelines are necessary to ensure that the rules are enforced in workplaces. "It is a challenge to ensure that these rules are applied equally throughout Europe,” he said.

Along with lead, Europe has moved to limit - for the first time - exposure to a class of chemical compounds called diisocyanates, known to cause respiratory conditions like asthma. 

Exposure to other carcinogenic chemicals also remains a health risk. Benzene, for example, is widely used in the petrochemical industry, however the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has reported ill effects after prolonged exposure; women exposed to benzene have reported foetal loss, reduced fertility and low birth weights.

In the iron and steel industries, the process of welding is known to release fumes containing harmful chemicals such as nickel, chromium, cadmium and carbon monoxide. The exposure limits to nickel, chromium and cadmium have all been reduced under the new EU guidelines.

Nikolaj Villumsen, MEP, told Euronews that the changes are significant: "We are talking about saving human lives. Fewer workers will get sick from going to work. Fewer workers will die."

Metal workers, industrial workers, those who are making the wind turbines, who are making the batteries, those who are actually at the forefront of the green transition, will be better protected due to this legislation.
Nikolaj Villumsen

But Villumsen also stressed that he thinks the new values don't go far enough. “Not if you ask me, and not if you ask the majority here in the parliament. But these are still significant improvements for workers," he said.

The MEP added that thanks to a review clause in the legislation, the new limits will be reassessed in five years, allowing time for new technologies to assess any additional harmful effects and for subsequent amendments to be made. 

Summing up, Villumsen said: “More workers will be exposed to these dangerous substances due to the green transition. That is why it is so crucial that we make sure that workers are better protected, that those who are part of the green transition, the workers doing it on the ground, do not lose their lives or get sick due to their work.” 

Once in force, the 27 Member States must implement Europe’s new chemical rules into national law within two years.

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