Although the Netherlands banned asbestos 22 years ago, officials continue eliminating the toxic mineral from the country’s infrastructure, most recently ordering all asbestos roofing be removed by Jan. 1, 2024.
The removal only applies to exterior asbestos-containing materials such as corrugated sheets and slate roofing. It does not apply to interior asbestos roof boards and roof insulation.
“The ban on [asbestos] roofing is a start,” David de Vreede, a technical advisor for the Dutch group Committee for Asbestos Victims, told Asbestos.com. “The goal is no asbestos in the country, but that will take a long time.”
While the government is subsidizing some of the asbestos removal costs, experts predict the federal financial help is not enough.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Netherlands reports high rates of asbestos-related deaths.
Ban on Asbestos Roofs Will Prevent Exposure
Wilma Mansveld, former Undersecretary for Infrastructure and Environment, led the roof ban, citing deteriorating roofs and recent fires as reasons for banning the asbestos building materials.
“We have to take this risk seriously and tackle it. I want to prevent people from being exposed to asbestos fibers,” Mansveld said in a 2015 translated press release. “Recent fires in which asbestos particles ended up [in] residential areas underline the need for a ban.”
Inclement weather, such as hail, high winds and freezing rain, also leads to deterioration, and over time, the spread of dangerous particles. The average lifespan of an asbestos roof is 30 years. In many cases, replacement is long overdue.
De Vreede, 25, owns a water and air filtration company with his father and regularly works with asbestos removal companies. Aside from his involvement with the Committee for Asbestos Victims, he lobbies for better environmental standards.
He believes many Dutch residents are unaware of the dangers above their heads. While the country banned asbestos in 1994, the ban only applies to the trade, storage and use of asbestos. Asbestos materials are still common in older buildings.
“Some people think that because of the ban, that there is no danger,” he said. “Those people are wrong.”
Building Owners Face High Costs to Remove Asbestos
Owners of buildings with asbestos roofs are responsible for removal, and the municipalities can inform individuals under what special conditions they may fall under.
All removals must be reported to the municipality. After the 2024 deadline, municipalities can impose a fine or penalty on owners.
“Some people think that because of the ban, that there is no danger,” De Vreede said. “Those people are wrong.”
The Netherlands has strict asbestos removal standards, and it is a costly and time-consuming process. In an effort to ease the burden on affected building owners, the Dutch government introduced a subsidy program in January that provided them $16.7 million (15 million euros).
However, De Vreede says it’s not enough.
“[The asbestos removal] is estimated to cost 3 to 4 billion euros ($3.3 to 4.5 billion), so that’s just a drop of water in the frying pan,” he said.
Many Asbestos Roofs Are in Lower-Income Areas
More than three quarters of the affected roofs are located in agricultural sectors of the country, according to Dutch website Groninger Krant. De Vreede said that many of those affected include residents of low-income housing formerly owned by corporations.
“The corporations don’t want to renovate because of the cost, so they will sell to immigrants and poor people who simply don’t know any better,” he said.
Law requires sellers to disclose in a contract if a structure contains asbestos materials, but these disclaimers are often in fine print and in Dutch, making them easily overlooked or difficult to understand for foreigners and the poorly educated.
“It’s usually just a ‘sign here’ situation,” de Vreede explained.
Mesothelioma Is a Growing Problem in the Netherlands
The Netherlands reported 481 mesothelioma deaths to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2010, more than double the amount of neighboring Belgium.
That’s nearly the same amount of reported deaths in Spain, Portugal and Denmark, combined.
Neighboring Germany — with a population nearly five times the size of the Netherlands — reported only 1,397 mesothelioma deaths to the WHO in 2010.
While de Vreede believes the Netherlands’ true asbestos numbers are on par with the rest of the EU, he did point out the country has a deep history in the shipbuilding industry because of its location on the North Sea.
Shipbuilders used asbestos to insulate most sea vessel parts.
“There is often little to no ventilation on the ships, which can lead to high [asbestos] exposure,” he said.
Fires at warehouses and farms are also catalysts for spreading asbestos, taking particles a mile or more away, and in some cases, affecting heavily populated city centers.
Asbestos Is Out of Sight, Out of Mind for Many
Joyce Matthijssen, a lawyer at the Committee for Asbestos Victims in the Netherlands, said the awareness of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases varies from person to person, but she feels it’s especially low among younger generations.
“They didn’t experience the time in which asbestos was actually banned consciously,” Matthijssen said. “Most people of this younger generation don’t even know how to identify asbestos.”
Matthijssen added that many of the Dutch don’t think about their homes or office buildings containing asbestos.
“They also do not bother to find out,” she said. “And when they do find out, in most cases, they are more concerned about the cost of removing asbestos than about asbestos hazards.”