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MEPs call for removal of asbestos from all public buildings

If passed in parliament, a new report would also see member states required to provide increased protection and training for workers.

Image: Stephen Pond/PA Archive

MEPS ARE CALLING for the European Union to protect workers and citizens in member states from the effects of asbestos.

A motion tabled by the Committee for Employment and Social Affairs in the European Parliament has passed through committee stage and will go before the parliament for its first reading later this month.

In 2005 Europe banned asbestos and a cleanup operation has been taking place across European countries for decades, though many MEPs believe this has not been sufficient.

The new report calls for increased removal measures that would see all member states required to clear asbestos from all public buildings or buildings providing services which require regular public access by 2028.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 people a year suffer from asbestos related diseases with as many as 120,000 dying every year as a result of one of these illnesses.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Irish MEP and a member of the responsible committee, Emer Costello, said this is a “huge issue” and that many people “would not be aware that there are so many public buildings that have asbestos”.

In 2008, the roof of the hemicycle in Strasboug collapsed, while the parliament was out of session, and asbestos was discovered. Costello said this shows that the substance is “present even in relatively modern buildings”.

“There are some water pipe systems across the European Union – I’m not sure about Ireland now – that also have asbestos and a lot of people don’t know that,” Costello said.

Costello said that an important part of the report is the call for register of buildings that have asbestos and training for professionals like architects, engineers and those working in construction.

“This is as important a health and safety issue as any of the others we have on construction sites so we do need proper EU directives and proper implementation on this,” she said.

Compensation for victims

The MEP estimated that as many as 3,000 people a year may be suffering from asbestos related illnesses in Ireland and said that if these people were working in public buildings, the state should be liable for compensation. However she said that it would be the responsibility of individual private companies to establish compensation mechanisms for employees.

In a cast against Irish Rail in 1999, the family of a former employee was awarded £200,000 in damages in London’s High Court. Patrick O’Toole had died from cancer in 1987 after 30 years suffering with the disease as he had been exposed to asbestos dust while working on railway carriages in the 1950s.

The court ruled that Irish Rail pay 30 per cent of the damages while the suppliers were required to pay the bulk of the money.

While the new report says victims should be provided with access to healthcare for resulting illnesses, it does not address the issue of compensation and where it should come from.

In a recent report, EuroparlTV spoke to a community in the city of Mons in Belgium which has been significantly affected by asbestos, as many people living in the area worked in the local construction supplies factory. Several people in the area have died of asbestos related diseases such as asbestosis, when the lungs fills up with fibres or mesothelioma, a particularly aggressive form of cancer.

Eric Jonckheere, co-chairman of a victim’s association said the association has drawn up a list of nearly 130 names of people who have died “because they were lied to and they were carried off by asbestos diseases”.

Jonckheere himself lost his mother, two brothers and his father, who was an engineer at the local Eternit factory, to mesothelioma.

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Claude Lambert, former employee at the factory said:

We can do what we like. We’ll never be able to make them pay enough. But I think that the Belgian government is also responsible because it wasn’t only in the asbestos factories. They put asbestos in schools and there were problems too. But they knew.

Ethernit and associated companies employ around 1,000 people in Belgium. The company’s legal executive Roeland Verhille said many industries used asbestos beyond the construction industry and while it does not deny the past, it had stopped using the substance even before the EU ban.

“We have a past and we want to tackle the past,” he said. “That’s the reason also that we made a programme and that we said it’s not only about nonrecognition of victims, it’s broader than that. It’s also about supporting medical research, also about our own premises, and supporting the community where we can.”

As well as a database and improved training, the European Parliament committee report is calling for a worldwide ban as governments in countries like Canada are still investing in asbestos.

Removal of asbestos from all public buildings is likely to be an expensive task but Emer Costello said that a cost benefit analysis was conducted as part of the report and that “in the longrun we can’t afford not to do it”. “This will involve a fifteen year wind-down if it’s put in place so I’m confident that should give member states sufficient time,” she added.

The report will now go before the parliament for its first reading on 20 April.

Video used with permission of EuroParlTV.

Read: Abbey Theatre to close after asbestos discovery>

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