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Pressure builds for the #GreenDeal ‘Renovation Wave’ to address mineral wool health risks and lack of recyclability

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The European Commission’s ambitious European Green Deal aims to address the twin challenge of energy efficiency and affordability and states that the European Union and the member states should engage in a 'Renovation Wave' of public and private buildings.

This policy enjoys broad support and the renovation wave has also become a key element of the Commission’s post-COVID-19 Recovery Plan, the flagship €750 billion fiscal package which is top of the agenda for Friday’s “virtual” summit in Brussels of EU leaders and heads of state. The council will again be online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Commission is currently consulting on the Renovation Wave and is expected to adopt this initiative as planned later this year. Insulation is likely to be a major plank of this project. However, concerns are growing that potential health risks from a widely used insulation material called Manmade Vitreous Fibres (MMVF), also known as mineral wool, along with fears it is not a recyclable material, must be taken into account as Europe renovates its buildings.

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The Commission stated in its new Circular Economy Action Plan that the Renovation Wave would lead to significant improvements in energy efficiency in the EU and would be implemented in line with circular economy principles, including recycling. It would pay special attention to insulation materials, which generate a growing waste stream. In April, Pascal Canfin (RE, France), the Chair of the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) made calls for renovation schemes to play a central role in a green recovery plan, with European funds to insulate every school in Europe.

Against this backdrop, the European Parliament is working on a resolution on maximizing the energy efficiency potential of the EU building stock. The draft report of the responsible Industry Committee of the European Parliament (ITRE) by Rapporteur Ciarán Cuffe (Greens/EFA, Ireland) considers that energy-efficient buildings should be safe and sustainable because "now, more than ever, citizens require and deserve a healthy and safe place to call home."

The Environment and Health Committee (ENVI) is working on an opinion to inform the ITRE report. The draft opinion of the ENVI Rapporteur Maria Spyraki (EPP, Greece) “[s]tresses that there is no common EU legislation on the management of bulky waste in general, and of polystyrene and stone wool in particular; expresses its concern about the safe handling of insulation materials, given the possible inclusion of dangerous substances in them”.

Multiple amendments to that suggestion have been proposed, including amendment 60, by Jutta Paulus (Germany) on behalf of the Greens Group: “Stresses that dumping of waste is illegal and that there is no common EU legislation on the management of bulky but recyclable waste such as stone wool; expresses its concern about the safe handling of insulation materials such as polystyrene, during demolition as well as in waste treatment, given the possible inclusion of dangerous substances in them that put a threat to the non-toxic environment […]”. It is clear in this amendment that a claim is attempted to be made that mineral wool is recyclable, but that claim appears to be far from clear cut.

The recyclability of the mineral wool has been challenged. It is a material made from synthetic fibres, despite its very natural sounding names like “mineral wool” or “stone wool”. Stone wool, which is a form of mineral wool has been deemed only theorectically recyclable or recyclable to a limited extent which rather challenges the position of ENVI Shadow Rapporteur Paulus. Even Eurima, the European mineral wool insulation manufacturers association says that recycling options for mineral wool exist only “in some countries, for example in the brick industry or recycling offered by a mineral wool manufacturer”.

A 2009 academic article notes that there is hardly any reliable data available on the actual volume of mineral wool wastes. There are also concerns that any carcinogenic properties of the material do not simply disappear just because it is being recycled. Mineral wool wastes share the properties of the original material; this includes “the carcinogenic potential of old mineral wools, secondary components such as binder and lubricant contents or aluminium layers, etc., as well as low bulk density.”

Mineral wool is treated under the EU Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP Regulation 1272/2008 as “suspected human carcinogen”. The so-called “Q note” allows for exceptions from this classification under certain requirements, which mineral wool produced before 1996 generally do not fulfil. Possibly carcinogenic mineral wool has not been banned across the EU yet, e.g. in Austria. Health concerns are not limited to possible carcinogenicity. There are other health concerns which also apply to so-called new mineral wool, produced since 1996, including skin abnormalities and lung disease including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). These potential health risks add to concerns over recyclability, raising questions over whether it is wise to recycle a material when there are such concerns over the safety of the original material.

Discussion will intensify as key dates approach, such as 25 June when the ENVI opinion is to be adopted, followed by the adoption of the ITRE report on 6 July and the adoption of the content of ITRE report by EP plenary on 14 September. The revised Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will also be discussed at today's summit.

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Norway again postpones end to COVID lockdown

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A man wearing a protective mask carries shopping bags as he walks on the streets of Oslo following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Oslo, Norway. NTB Scanpix/Hakon Mosvold Larsen via REUTERS

Norway postponed for a second time on Wednesday (28 July) a planned final step in the reopening of its economy from pandemic lockdown, due to the continued spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, the government said, writes Terje Solsvik, Reuters.

"A new assessment will be made in mid-August," Health Minister Bent Hoeie told a news conference.

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Measures that will be kept in place to halt the spread of COVID-19 include bars and restaurants being limited to table service and limits of 20 people on gatherings in private homes.

The government in April launched a four-step plan to gradually remove most pandemic restrictions, and had completed the first three of those steps by mid-June.

On July 5, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said the fourth step could come in late July or early August at the earliest because of concerns about the Delta coronavirus variant. Read more.

About 80% of adults in Norway have received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 41% of adults are fully vaccinated, according to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Thanks to an early lockdown in March 2020 and tight restrictions that followed, the nation of 5.4 million people has seen one of Europe's lowest rates of mortality from the virus. Some 800 Norwegians have died from COVID-19.

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EU signs deal with GSK for supply of potential COVID drug

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Company logo of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline is seen at their Stevenage facility, Britain October 26, 2020. REUTERS/Matthew Childs/File Photo

The European Union has signed a contract with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) for the supply of up to 220,000 treatments of its investigational monoclonal antibody therapy sotrovimab against COVID-19, it said on Wednesday (28 July), write Francesco Guarascio with additional reporting by Jo Mason, Reuters.

The drug, which is developed together with U.S. firm Vir Biotechnology (VIR.O), can be used for the treatment of high-risk coronavirus patients with mild symptoms who do not require supplemental oxygen, according to the Commission.

The deal is a boost to GSK work on potential treatments for COVID-19 after the company played a limited role in the development of vaccines. Rather than making its own coronavirus shot, GSK has focused on supplying its booster to other developers and has partnered with Sanofi (SASY.PA) to develop a jab.

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GSK confirmed the deal in a statement on Wednesday, saying it represented "a crucial step forward for treating cases of COVID-19" in Europe.

The drug is currently being assessed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) under a rolling review.

It has received emergency authorisation in the United States to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 patients who are at high risk of developing a severe infection.

The contract has been backed by 16 of the 27 EU states, which can buy the drug only after it is approved by EMA or by national drug regulators. The price agreed for potential purchases has not been disclosed. A spokesman for the Commission declined to comment on the matter.

Monoclonal antibodies mimic natural antibodies that the body generates to fight infection.

The deal with GSK follows a contract the EU signed in April with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche (ROG.S) to secure about 55,000 doses of a potential treatment based on a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies developed by Roche together with U.S. drugmaker Regeneron (REGN.O). Read more.

Apart from monoclonal treatments, the only other anti-COVID drug the EU has bought is Gilead's (GILD.O) remdesivir, an antiviral medicine. Last year, the EU reserved half a million courses after the drug obtained a conditional EU approval.

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Coronavirus disinformation: Online platforms take new actions and call for more players to join the Code of Practice

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The Commission has published the reports by Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Microsoft and Google on measures taken in June to combat coronavirus disinformation. The current signatories and the Commission are also calling on new companies to join the Code of Practice on disinformation as it will help broaden its impact and make it more effective. Values and Transparency Vice President Věra Jourová said: “The COVID-19 disinformation monitoring programme has allowed to keep track of important actions put in place by online platforms. With new variants of the virus spreading and vaccinations continuing at full speed, it is crucial to deliver on the commitments. We look forward to the strengthening of the Code of Practice.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton added: “The EU stood by its promise to deliver enough doses to safely vaccinate every EU citizen. All stakeholders now need to assume their responsibility to beat vaccine hesitancy spurred by disinformation. While we are strengthening the Code of Practice with platforms and signatories, we are calling for new signatories to join the fight against disinformation”. 

For example, TikTok's campaign supporting vaccination, with the Irish government, reached over one million views and over 20,000 likes. Google continued to work with public health authorities to show information about vaccination locations in Google Search and Maps, a feature available in France, Poland, Italy, Ireland, and Switzerland. On Twitter, users can now train automated systems to better identify violations of the platform's COVID-19 disinformation policy.

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Microsoft extended its partnership with NewsGuard, an Edge extension that warns about websites spreading disinformation. Facebook cooperated with international health authorities to increase public awareness of vaccine efficacy and safety and with Michigan State University (MSU) researchers to better detect and attribute deepfakes. These joint efforts need to continue in view of the persisting and complex challenges that online disinformation still presents. The Commission's COVID-19 disinformation monitoring programme has been extended until the end of 2021 and reports will now be published every two months. The next set of reports will be published in September. Following the recently published Guidance, the signatories have kicked off the process to strengthen the Code and launched a joint call for interest for potential new signatories.

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