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June 02, 2016
EU seeks protection from cancer-causing chemicals

The European Union (EU) Commission has issued a proposal to limit exposure to 13 chemical agents. Find out what’s involved and how the issue affects global businesses.

According to the EU, cancer is the leading cause of work-related deaths in EU nations, accounting for 53 percent of the total and making it the single largest health risk. The commission has proposed limit values for 13 priority chemical agents and additional analysis on limit values for others. The recommendation is based on input from scientists, employers, workers, member states, and labor inspectors. The revision aims to facilitate implementation of a directive adopted in 2004. 

Under EU rules, employers must identify and assess risks to workers associated with exposure to specific carcinogens and must prevent exposure where risks occur. Where possible, the substances should be substituted with less hazardous alternatives. Otherwise, carcinogens must be manufactured and used in a closed system to prevent worker exposures. Otherwise, exposure must be reduced as much as possible.

Among carcinogens, the list includes hardwood dusts; silica; 1,3-butadiene; hydrazine; ethylene oxide; and chromium compounds.

According to the EU Commission, limiting exposure to these and other chemicals “could make it possible to avoid about 100,000 deaths in the forthcoming 50 years.” One challenge is that the time between exposure to a carcinogen and the onset of disease can be up to 50 years.

Proponents say the change would benefit workers and their families by reducing suffering and the lowered quality of life caused by cancer. As well, it would help avoid healthcare costs and lost earnings and would improve legal protection for exposed workers. For businesses, the proposal would also reduce costs related to productivity and training of new workers.

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