EU Calls for Workplace Exposure Limits to Carcinogens

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By Stephen Gardner

May 16 — The European Commission proposed to amend May 13 a 2004 European Union directive on workplace safety by modifying occupational exposure limits for 13 carcinogenic substances.

The commission, the EU's executive arm, said in an impact assessment accompanying the proposal that the EU Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (2004/37/EC) was “outdated” and “not in line with scientific evidence.” New EU-wide exposure limits for the substances were needed because EU countries have varying national limits, meaning companies in countries with less-stringent controls could “benefit from an undue competitive advantage,” the commission added.

The impact assessment gave the example of 1,2-epoxypropane, one of the 13 substances, for which workplace exposure limits in France, Greece and Romania are 10 times less strict than those in Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

For another of the substances, 2-nitropropane, 11 of 28 EU member states, including France, Italy and Poland, have no workplace exposure limit, according to the commission's impact assessment.

The other substances for which EU limits would be put in place under the commission's proposal are 1,3-butadiene, acrylamide, bromoethylene, chromium (VI) compounds, ethylene oxide, hardwood dusts, hydrazine, o-toluidine, respirable crystalline silica, refractory ceramic fibers and vinyl chloride monomer.

Could Cut Cancer Cases

The commission said that harmonized EU workplace exposure limits for the substances could reduce the number of cancer cases by 100,000 in the next half century.

Cancer deaths would be avoided in particular by the imposition of a workplace exposure limit on respirable crystalline silica, which is dust created by work processes such as mining, quarrying, or tunnelling or cutting, crushing or grinding of silica-containing materials such as concrete, bricks or rocks, the commission said.

The commission proposed a limit of 0.1 milligram per cubic meter of air for respirable crystalline silica, which would bring the EU into line with Australia and Canada. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a final rule (RIN:1218-AB70) in March limiting respirable crystalline silica exposure to 0.05 miligram per cubic meter (46 OSHR 298, 3/31/16).

The commission impact assessment added that the amendments to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive would complement measures under the EU's REACH law (Regulation No. 1907/2006 on the registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals), under which restrictions or prohibitions have already been put on many of the 13 substances.

For example, a number of chromium compounds are included in Annex XIV of REACH, meaning they cannot be used in the EU without specific continued-use authorizations.

Initiative Welcomed

The European Chemical Industry Council welcomed the proposals.

Marco Mensink, the council's director general, said EU limits for the 13 substances would provide “added value” to “voluntary programs” to reduce workplace exposure to carcinogens in the EU.

David Casa, a Maltese center-right member of the European Parliament, said lawmakers would “make sure that this proposal becomes law in the shortest time frame possible,” because cancer was “the first cause of work-related deaths in the EU.”

For the commission's proposal to be adopted, it must be agreed by the European Parliament, and by the Council of the EU, which represents the governments of member states.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Gardner in Brussels at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at

For More Information

Documents related to the European Commission's proposed amendment of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive are available at