The European Parliament was the venue last week for a roundtable discussion highlighting the potential health risks of mineral wool, or Man-made Vitreous Fibres (MMVF) as it is also known. Mineral wool is a type of thermal insulation made from rocks and minerals. After asbestos was banned in most countries in the 1990s, the de facto replacement for it became mineral wool. However, concerns have been raised that the health risks associated with mineral wool are potentially just as worrying as those that caused asbestos to be banned. Campaigners want the health threats posed by mineral wool to be a priority for review by the new intake of MEPs joining the European Parliament after gaining seats in May’s elections. The event inside the Parliament sought to focus the attention of members of the incoming Environment and Health Committee to the issue.
Campaigners fear there is little public awareness about the possible health risks of mineral wool, for both workers in the construction industry and also the general public who might be installing, removing or disposing of the insulation product. These concerns were summarised in a report by the publication EU Today, which highlighted the lung and skin conditions that workers and homeowners conducting DIY could be at risk from. The report called for the product to be re-tested and for the product to be properly labelled so that the risks and instructions for reducing those risks are very clear to users of mineral wool. The EU Today report also demanded that protective gear be compulsory for those who have to work with the material in the construction industry.
A participant at the discussion, Aurel Laurenţiu Plosceanu from the European Economic and Social Committee and the Rapporteur on ‘Working with Hazardous Substances’ said: “More needs to be done to make more people aware of the potential dangers of mineral wool. There is a real risk associated with this material and, like asbestos, people need to be made aware of the possible risks.”
Mr Plosceanu called for a range of measures, including an awareness raising campaign, better labelling, more investment in research and safer equipment for people in the construction industry who work with the material. He said: “The particular problem with this material is that any health problems may not actually appear in someone until long after their exposure to it. With something like lung cancer, which, as with asbestos, is a possible health risk associated with this, unfortunately that could be too late. By that stage, treatment may be ineffective.”
He added: “Problems can possibly start if the material is touched or the fibres get into the air and are inhaled. The risks apply to both workers in the building trade and also inhabitants and office workers who may also be exposed to it.”
Mr Plosceanu, who is also president of the Romanian Construction Entrepreneurs Association, said, “That is why we need action now. We need improved equipment for construction workers and better labelling so that the possible dangers are made clear to both workers and inhabitants.”
Mr Plosceanu suggested that Poland should be looked to for inspiration on how to tackle the problem. The Polish authorities have implemented a specific programme and invested sufficient funding in order to address the issue and Mr Plosceanu suggested that this strategy could be a model for Europe in tackling the problems caused by both asbestos and mineral wool.
Gary Cartwright, the Editor of EU Today and the author of the report on mineral wool, also addressed the roundtable discussion. He said: “People are often unaware of the dangers and that is one reason why MEPs on the newly formed relevant committees need to do more to bring it all to the attention of the public and the EU institutions.”
Mr Cartwright described the “harrowing” videos he had seen of those suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, describing how victims were unable to stand or walk and that they could barely speak. He reminded panellists that this condition seemed in some ways “worse than cancer, as it’s incurable and you have it for life”. He also asked the panellists whether they would want their children to live in a home that contained material that had caused such illness to adults handling the material. He also gave a personal anecdote about installing mineral wool in his own attic and the irritation it caused his hands, asking participants to consider those same particles inside their lungs.
He explained that mineral wool had previously been classified as carcinogenic but that later testing was conducted on the material without its important ‘binder’ ingredient, meaning that the product was not tested as it is sold and that the test results that led to it being later downgraded and incorrectly losing its carcinogenic status. Mr Cartwright is in favour of the product being re-tested, this time with the ‘binder’ ingredient included, to make tests properly reflective of mineral wool as it is sold to the construction industry and consumers.
Mr Cartwright concluded: “It took 100 years before legislation was passed to help protect us from asbestos. Let us hope it does not take as long to deal with mineral wool.”