An opinion by Sara Matthieu, Greens/EFA MEP
Asbestos is often perceived as a problem of the past, but this harmful and largely invisible substance is still hiding in many buildings across the EU. We are calling for an ambitious renovation wave throughout Europe that includes the removal of asbestos in homes and buildings. Why is asbestos so dangerous and what can we do to ensure a safe home for everyone?
Asbestos was banned from the European market in 2005 due to its serious health and safety risks. Even so, more than 80,000 people die every year from exposure to asbestos in the EU, and this number is rising. This is an alarming statistic, especially in 2021. The majority of individuals most seriously affected have experienced high exposure to asbestos in their professional environment. The most common culprits are the construction industry (builders, architects) or asbestos processing factories.
But, what is asbestos and why is it bad for our health?
Asbestos is a cheap, fire resistant and easily available mineral that was popular in construction in the 1940s-1980s. As a result, millions of tonnes of asbestos are still contained in homes and buildings across Europe. Deteriorating asbestos products release fibres or dust. Inhalation of even one tiny abrasive fibre is enough to develop cancer over time. Domestic exposure poses an invisible but growing health threat in Europe.
Through its so-called renovation wave, the EU aims to at least double the annual energy renovation rate by 2030. This is a crucial step towards a carbon-free future. The renovation wave also offers a unique opportunity to remove asbestos from Europe’s buildings – from healthcare facilities, to sport centres, to social housing – in the process. While renovating homes and buildings, it is possible to remove asbestos at the same time and improve the safety of the everyday built environment.
How widespread is the asbestos problem in European homes and buildings?
Reliable figures on the prevalence of asbestos in Europe’s houses are lacking. Nevertheless, we know that the scope of the problem is enormous. The Flanders region of Belgium estimates that one million tonnes of asbestos can be found within 2.7 million homes. It’s the result of more than 3,500 construction materials containing asbestos being used widely in the region. These vary from roofing, wall insulation, window seals, old cement siding, floor and ceiling tiles to all kinds of insulation pipes, boilers, and industrially-used glues, mainly under flooring.
What happens when you find asbestos in your home?
Many people are alarmed to learn that their house may contain asbestos and yet it’s a common problem. Let’s look at Julia*, who rents a recently refurbished loft in Brussels, Belgium. When the water pipe burst in her apartment, asbestos was discovered in the pipe’s insulation. The owner tried to leave her with an extra €6000 bill for the removal of the asbestos, claiming that she had caused the pipe to burst. When she refused, the owner fixed the existing water pipe, leaving the asbestos in.
Stories like Julia’s are not uncommon. Currently, there is no EU-wide legal obligation for a property owner to remove asbestos. This is something we have been calling for in the European Parliament and would like to see from the European Commission proposal as well.
Let’s hear another example. Take Xavier*, who decided to buy a recently refurbished house in the countryside in the north of Spain. Only the garden shed remained untouched. When he went to demolish it, he suspected the roof and cement walls contained asbestos. After testing, this was indeed the case. Removal required a specialist firm to conduct the work. It left Xavier with an extra €8000 bill. Why did the previous owner have no legal obligation to inform him? Why is no support available to Xavier to carry out the work?
The Greens/EFA in the European Parliament would like to see a strategy for the mandatory removal of all asbestos present in buildings across the EU. So far, only Flanders (Belgium), the Netherlands and Poland have developed such a strategy, with funds set aside for renovations.
* stories are based on a range of real-life examples from across the EU
What can the EU do to remove asbestos from our homes?
We want the European Commission to step up the ambition towards an asbestos-free EU. A proposal on asbestos is expected from the European Commission in 2022. The Employment and Social Affairs Committee in the European Parliament recently adopted a report calling for a comprehensive European strategy for the removal of asbestos in all EU Member States, as well as mandatory screenings of buildings prior to sale, rent or renovation. Due to the Greens/EFA, the report strongly insists on combining asbestos removal with home renovation programs. The report received broad political support from Members of the European Parliament.
How would the Greens/EFA make sure every home is safe from asbestos?
No matter where you’re living in the EU, we want everyone to be protected from asbestos. This is why we are calling for a European directive on asbestos removal strategies. We want EU Member States and the European Union to encourage and support homeowners to renovate their houses and remove asbestos at the same time. Member States can use existing European funds – and those made available within the renovation wave – for the removal of asbestos.
If we’re going to do this fairly, we also urgently need stronger worker protections from asbestos exposure. Asbestos removal will pose health risks to the construction workers carrying out renovations, so we need to set a careful limit for exposure to asbestos by those who will be working to remove it.
We believe that the European Commission must follow the strong political signal coming from the European Parliament. Everyone should have the right to a decent, affordable and healthy home.
👉Stay up to date with our housing campaign👈
Author: Sara Matthieu, Greens/EFA MEP
Francesca Jenner – Social Justice Campaigner