Protecting workers by reducing exposure to carcinogens  

Press Releases 

Members of the social affairs and employment committee voted on Thursday for stricter EU rules to better protect workers from exposure to carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxic agents at work.

These rules, which add limit values for two carcinogens to the dangerous substances list and revise the limit value downwards for another one, target the primary cause of work-related deaths in the EU.

Lower exposure limits

Occupational exposure limits, i.e. the maximum quantity of harmful substances (usually expressed in milligrams per cubic metre of air) that workers can be exposed to, have been set for:

- Acrylonitrile

- Nickel compounds

In addition to these maximum limits, the proposal also adds a skin notation for acrylonitrile as well as a notation for dermal and respiratory sensitisation for nickel compounds.

The maximum limit is revised downwards for:

- Benzene

Employers will have to identify and assess risks to workers who are exposed to these substances and take preventive measures.

Reprotoxic substances and hazardous medicinal products

MEPs also voted to extend the scope of the directive with the inclusion of reprotoxic substances. These substances have adverse effects on reproductivity and can cause impaired fertility or infertility and MEPs want these substances to be taken seriously. They demand the Commission to put forward an action plan before the end of 2021 to achieve limits for a number of reprotoxic substances, including lead, lead compounds and mercury.

Finally, MEPs demanded the inclusion of hazardous medicinal products. In the healthcare sector alone, 12.7 million workers in Europe (of which 7.3 million nurses), are exposed to Hazardous Medicinal Products at work. Studies show that healthcare workers who handle cytotoxic drugs (all drugs with anti-tumoral activity) are three times more likely to develop cancerand nurses exposed to cytotoxic drugs are twice as likely to miscarry.

The report was approved by 46 votes and 6 abstentions.


Cancer is the leading cause of work-related deaths in the EU. Annually, 52% of occupational deaths are attributed to cancer, compared with 24% for circulatory diseases and 24% for other diseases and injuries. Exposure at work accounts for 5,3-8,4 % cases of cancer and is responsible for approximatively 120 .000 cancers diagnosed and more than 100 000 deaths every year. The most common types of occupational cancer are lung cancer, mesothelioma (caused by exposure to asbestos particles) and bladder cancer.

This is the fourth update of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive on the basis of new scientific and technical developments and after consultations with stakeholders. The three earlier revisions were adopted by the Parliament and the Council in December 2017, January 2019 and June 2019.