Page Last modified 28 Jun 2022
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All forms of Asbestos are known carcinogens, causing mainly (but not only) mesothelioma and lung cancer. Despite being banned since 2005, exposure to asbestos continues to happen and cancer cases due to asbestos exposure in the past will continue to be detected. Of special concern currently and in the foreseeable future are workers who may be exposed to asbestos in the context of building renovations and demolitions.

Asbestos and cancer

All forms of asbestos are classified by the IARC as known carcinogens, associated with lung, laryngeal and ovarian cancers in exposed individuals and responsible for nearly all cases of malignant mesothelioma  (Couespel and Price, 2020). While the EU has banned it since 2005, its legacy in Europe persists. The long latency period between exposure to asbestos and developing cancer means that cases attributed to asbestos may continue to appear for years. Moreover, asbestos is still present in many buildings in Europe, as well as in former industrial sites and contaminated areas (Alpert et al., 2020). According to the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) asbestos may claim up to 88,000 lives in Europe annually, accounting for 55-85% of occupational lung cancers (EC, 2019).

Trends in exposure to asbestos in Europe

All use of asbestos has been banned in the EU since 2005, and several Member States had adopted asbestos bans well before then. Although updated data are not readily available, a 2014 study found that the use of asbestos was close to negligible by 2012 in most European countries (Kameda et al., 2014). However, as explained above, this does not mean that the cancer risk from asbestos is no longer significant. While asbestos may not be actively used and marketed, built-in asbestos in, for example, pipes, insulation, stoves, heating devices, asbestos sheeting and roofing may put people who carry out maintenance and other work in buildings or waste and sanitation workers at risk. Major renovation efforts such as the European Commission Renovation Wave may, in the absence of adequate preventive measures, inadvertently increase exposure by releasing asbestos embedded in building materials. 

What the EU is doing about asbestos

Some EU Member States banned the use of asbestos in the 1990s, and an EU-wide ban on asbestos in products sold in the EU was issued in 2005. Since then, EU safeguards on asbestos have been introduced through various directives on environmental pollution, chemical safety, workers’ protection and consumer products. Preparatory work to lower the existing OEL under the Asbestos at Work Directive (2009/148/EC) is under way. The European Parliament has also requested that the Commission submit a proposal for a framework directive setting out minimum requirements for national asbestos removal strategies (European Parliament, 2021).


Alpert, N., et al., 2020, ‘Epidemiology of mesothelioma in the 21st century in Europe and the United States, 40 years after restricted/banned asbestos use’, Translational Lung Cancer Research9(Suppl 1), pp. S28-S38 (DOI: 10.21037/tlcr.2019.11.11).

Couespel, N. and Price, R., 2020,Strengthening Europe in the fight against cancer, European Parliament, Policy Department of Life Policies (

EC, 2019, Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Working with Asbestos in Energy Renovation’  (own-initiative opinion) (C/240/04).

European Parliament, 2021, ‘European Parliament resolution of 20 October 2021 with recommendations to the Commission on protecting workers from asbestos (2019/2182(INL))’, European Parliament (

Jongeneel, W., et al., 2016,Work-related cancer in the European Union: Size, impact and options for further prevention, RIVM Letter report 2016-0010 (

Kameda, T., et al., 2014, ‘Asbestos: use, bans and disease burden in Europe’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization92(11), pp. 790-797 (DOI: 10.2471/BLT.13.132118).


Cover photo © by Ricardo Gomez Angel on


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Filed under: asbestos, cancer
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