France is intensifying its fight against asbestos with new legislation that will reduce dramatically the allowable levels of exposure in the workplace.
The French Ministry for Work, Employment and Heath will begin a three-year phase-in plan in 2012, one that expects to reduce the permissible level of asbestos in the air from 100 fibers per liter to just 10.
The new legislation stems from a recent study by the French National Institute for Research and Safety (INRS) that showed the dust levels in various workplaces were considerably higher than expected. More than 80 work sites were used in the study.
France banned all use of asbestos in the manufacturing and construction industries in 1996.
Exposure to asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma cancer. Although France banned the use of asbestos 15 years ago, it was used extensively throughout the country at work and in homes through much of the 20th century.
The lengthy latency period (10-50 years) between exposure and diagnosis has left many in France still uneasy about future dangers stemming from asbestos in older construction.
“Illnesses linked to asbestos today represent the second cause of occupational diseases and the main cause of work-related deaths,” note the INRS report. “Tens of millions of square meters of materials containing asbestos are still in place.”
While almost 50 countries around the world have banned asbestos, Canada and the United States have not. Shortly after France instituted its ban, the rest of the European Union followed its lead.
“The Government intends, in order to protect workers, to amend the regulations in the first half of 2012, to reflect the evolution of advanced scientific and technical knowledge,” according to a translation of the government press release. “France will be the first country in the world to require, in the workplace, this measurement technique.”
The French and the labor movement there have a long history with asbestos dangers. As far back as 1906, a French factory inspector reported 50 asbestos-related deaths in a spinning and weaving factory.
Workers protesting asbestos safety issues at the Amisol factory 1974 staged a sit-in that led to a company bankruptcy. Since 1975, French labor union groups have lobbied hard for asbestos removal at various businesses.
France also was one of the first European countries to prove that predicted problems with substitute products were highly overestimated, which led to the European Union following its lead.