February 16, 2023: A new European Commission proposal for significant reductions in the exposure limit for lead could rack up costs for primary metal producers and battery sector firms — and risk undermining EU climate goals, industry leaders have told Batteries International.
The Commission revealed on February 13 that it wants to further lower the occupational exposure limit from 0.15 milligrams per cubic metre (0.15mg/m3) to 0.03mg/m3 and lower the biological limit value from 70 microgram per 100 millilitre of blood (70µg/100ml) to 15µg/100ml.
The proposal is now to be discussed by the European Parliament and the Council and, if adopted, EU member states would have two years to transpose the directive into national law.
However, the International Lead Association warned EU states could find it challenging to adopt the directive within that period — without having a major impact on European metal producers and foundries and the many downstream industry sectors supporting the EU’s Green Deal plans to become climate-neutral by 2050.
And given that most EU states’ national biological limit values currently exceed 40µg Pb /100ml blood, there are likely to be many hundreds of workers in Europe with a blood lead exceeding the 15µg Pb /100ml BLV specified in the proposal the ILA said.
“We think that some form of transitional measure must be considered to give industry more time to adapt working practices.
“The Commission has tried to quantify costs associated with meeting the biological limit value in its impact assessment but does not appear to have assessed the likely costs of achieving the occupational exposure limit.”
The ILA said reducing the binding occupational exposure limit value (BOELV) from 0.15mg/m3 to 0.03mg/m3 was a significant change and may entail excessive costs for many companies as it would require modifications of production facility engineering controls.
“This is especially relevant to Europe’s primary metal producers that process metallic ores and who will face specific challenges.”
Given the Commission acknowledges the lack of any clear relationship between workplace air levels and employee internal dose (as measured by blood lead) the ILA said it believes establishing new BOELVs should be based primarily on socio-economic and technical feasibility considerations and as such should not be any lower than the lowest national OEL (0.05mg/m3) currently in force in EU member states.
The ILA said it fully supports the principle of lowering the existing EU biological limit value for lead to better protect the wellbeing, health and safety of workers.
In the absence of EU-wide regulatory limits that reflect current scientific knowledge on health impacts of lead exposures, the ILA said that it, together with other industry associations, has encouraged continuous improvement in the management of occupational lead exposures through the establishment of industry guidelines that go beyond the requirements of existing EU workplace legislation.
The Commission proposes to amend two directives — for lead, the directive on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxic substances at work and for lead and diisocyanates (a family of chemical building blocks mainly used to create polyurethanes), the directive on the protection of workers from the risks related to chemical agents at work.
On its reasoning for the new proposal, the Commission cited its own impact assessment estimating that currently 100,000 workers in the EU are exposed to lead at work.
The Commission claimed that lead accounts for around half of all occupational exposures to reprotoxic substances and that around 300 cases of ill-health occur annually in the EU due to past exposure to lead, although it did not publish details along with its proposal.
However, the Commission notes that workers can be exposed to lead due to its historical application in renovations, waste collection, recycling, and environmental remediation.
The proposal comes just weeks after the latest iteration of the Batteries Regulation was formally agreed, in a move hailed, by many in the industry, as a major step-forward in the legislation needed to standardize Europe’s approach to regulating itself.