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OELs for 13 carcinogens under EU Commission proposal

The European Commission has proposed occupational exposure limits (OELs) for 13 carcinogenic substances, including respirable crystalline silica.

The substances are among 20 priority chemical agents for which the Commission is conducting scientific and economic assessments with a view to preparing harmonised OELs across the EU. A second proposal covering the remaining substances will be issued by the end of the year, once further preparatory work is completed.

Marianne Thyssen – Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility – said the proposal would save 100,000 lives in the next 50 years.

Cancer is responsible for half of all work-related deaths in the EU, but currently only three substances are subject to binding OELs under the carcinogens and mutagens Directive: benzene, hardwood dust and vinyl chloride monomer.

The proposal suggests lowering the OELs for hardwood dust and vinyl chloride monomer, creating the following OELs:

  • 1,2-epoxypropane; 2.4mg/m3;
  • 1,3-butadiene; 2.2mg/m3;
  • 2-nitropropane; 18mg/m3;
  • acrylamide; 0.1mg/m3;
  • bromoethylene; 4.4mg/m3;
  • chromium (VI) compounds; 0.025mg/m3;
  • ethylene oxide; 1.8mg/m3;
  • hardwood dusts; 3mg/m3 (from7.77mg/m3);
  • hydrazine; 0.013mg/m3;
  • o-toluidine; 0.5mg/m3;
  • respirable crystalline silica (RCS); 0.1mg/m3;
  • refractory ceramic fibres (RCF); 0.3 f/ml; and
  • vinyl chloride monomer (VCM); 2.6 mg/m3 (from 5mg/m3).

The number of exposed workers is particularly high for RCS (5.3 million), hydrazine (2.1 million) and chromium (VI) compounds (92,000).

Furthermore, where national OELs apply, comparison with the proposed EU OELs can be stark. In Cyprus and Slovenia, for example, the national OEL for chromium (VI) compounds is 2 mg/m3 – 80 times the proposed EU OEL. Currently 16 EU states have OELs higher than that proposed by the Commission.

RCS is included as a ‘process generated’ substance. Silicosis and lung cancer caused by occupational exposure to RCS is a particular concern in the construction industry, which accounts for 70% of all exposed workers.

The proposed limit for RCS of 0.1mg/m3 is the same as the limit currently in force in the US. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed lowering this to 0.05mg/m3 – sparking legal challenges from trade groups and worker unions.

Most EU member states already apply at least the proposed limit, with the exception of Cyprus, Greece and Poland.