New line on asbestos heralds policy shift on "sunset chemicals"

A revised approach to the control of asbestos, involving a ban on all uses of the material except those shown by means of a risk assessment to represent the best environmental option, has been announced by the Government. The new policy may set a precedent for the control of other "sunset chemicals."

A review of existing controls on asbestos was promised by the 1990 White Paper on the environment. This revealed that the Government had already initiated consultations with industry on a policy of "banning or discouraging all uses of asbestos, except for a number of existing uses where detailed risk assessment has shown that suitable substitutes are either not available or do not offer a materially better option in safety or other terms."

On 28 February, Environment Minister David Trippier confirmed that this approach will form the basis of the UK's policy in negotiations on a forthcoming EC proposal.1The new approach will reverse the policy established following a major review by the Advisory Committee on Asbestos (ACA) in 1979, under which asbestos has been allowed to remain in use except where a product was identified as being particularly hazardous.

The old policy was effective in curtailing many uses of asbestos. UK imports of asbestos have been cut from about 140,000 tonnes per year in the late 1970s to less than 20,000 tonnes per year today. The most hazardous fibres, crocidolite and amosite, were banned in the wake of the ACA's report, and only chrysotile remains in use in the UK.

At EC level, crocidolite has been banned for several years, and a ban on all uses of amosite and the three minor amphibole fibres is due to be implemented by July 1993 under a new Directive.2 The same legislation imposes further restrictions on the marketing and use of chrysotile.

In the UK, the dominant use of the fibre is now in asbestos cement. Smaller amounts are consumed in speciality applications such as friction materials, gaskets and fire-resistant textiles.

The UK's new policy is not expected to result in any immediate official risk assessments of the remaining uses. Instead, the Government is awaiting developments at EC level.

Expert discussions have been under way for some time in Brussels on what legislation should succeed the new Directive. When this was under negotiation, the European Commission was forced to promise further legislation in order to placate several Member States which wanted an immediate ban on all uses of asbestos. Indeed, it was this pressure which appears to have prompted the UK to begin its policy review in 1990.

The latest indications from the Commission are that it will propose a ban on asbestos, but with derogations for some uses. However, it is still undecided how these derogations should be determined.

One option would be to announce a ban but then to give anyone wishing to continue with a particular application the opportunity to make a case for doing so, backed up by a risk assessment showing that the product concerned is the best option in that application for human health and the environment, over a period of perhaps two years.

A second option would be to leave it to Member States to put forward proposals for short and long-term derogations.

Progress on the legislation is likely to be slow. Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands are still insisting that asbestos should be banned. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Spain, Portugal and Greece are arguing against any further restrictions on the material.

Meanwhile, France wants the EC to continue adding further prohibitions to the existing list on a product-by-product basis. And the UK favours an approach based on risk assessment, so as to take account of possible hazards associated with, say, fibrous substitutes for asbestos or potential shortcomings in the performance of substitutes.

The Commission is coming under increasing pressure to find a way through this maze of conflicting interests. The countries which want a ban on asbestos are threatening to go it alone unless action is forthcoming rapidly at Community level.

Meanwhile, quite what the policy shift within the UK will mean for other hazardous materials remains to be seen. But hints from officials suggest that it would be no great surprise if substances such as cadmium and mercury and their compounds, whose applications have been whittled away over two decades on environmental and safety grounds, received the same treatment in due course.

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