by Matt Mauney, May 17, 2017
The fight to impose tough trade restrictions on chrysotile asbestos — a toxic mineral that causes mesothelioma cancer and other serious health conditions — will have to wait at least another two years.
For the sixth consecutive time, a handful of countries blocked the inclusion of the carcinogenic mineral from the Rotterdam Convention Hazardous Substances list (Annex III). Chemicals on the list are subject to restrictions that prevent the export of a product without the consent of the importing country.
Representatives from 157 countries met in Geneva, Switzerland, for the eighth Conference of the Parties (COP8) to the Rotterdam Convention. The biannual meeting drew to a close May 5.
Despite the vast majority of countries voting to include chrysotile — or white asbestos — to the list, there was not a unanimous backing by Rotterdam Treaty members, which is required to pass a vote.
Seven countries — Russia, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, India, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Syria — blocked the attempt to include chrysotile under the convention, overcoming the unified message of anti-asbestos advocacy groups around the world.
More than 100,000 people die each year from asbestos-related health conditions, including mesothelioma, a rare cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, abdominal cavity and heart.
Adding a substance to the list does not prohibit trade of that substance, but does require exporters to better inform purchasers about the hazards related to products containing the substance.
“Failure to list chrysotile asbestos on Annex III once again is an absolute disgrace,” Andrew Dettmer, the national president of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) said. “While they dither, a quarter of a million people will die from asbestos-related diseases.”
Anti-Asbestos Groups Question Rotterdam Process
The latest block of chrysotile’s inclusion on the hazardous substance list has ignited concerns over the Annex III approval process.
Under the current rules, all it takes is a single country to stand in the way of an item being listed as a “toxic substance or known carcinogen.”
For more than a decade, a small group of countries have blocked the wishes of the rest of the world to put stricter regulations on the exportation of chrysotile — the most common type of commercial asbestos and the only type not already on the list.
Russia, the world’s largest producer of asbestos, leads the charge. Asbestos production in Russia totaled 1.1 million metric tons in 2016 and has been on the rise since 2010.
India, a leading exporter of chrysotile asbestos, has also blocked previous attempts to include the toxic mineral on Rotterdam’s hazards list. The country’s asbestos demand is met through imports from Brazil and China, among others.
Chronic respiratory diseases, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, account for 13 percent of the total deaths in India, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
At COP8, representatives from the European Union, Australia and other nations raised concerns over the “archaic” voting procedures of Annex III, citing that it is endangering millions of people who continue to be unnecessarily exposed to asbestos.
Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Syria, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe are among other developing countries that still rely heavily on asbestos trade.
“Consensus decision making requires a good faith approach,” said Phillip Hazelton from Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, a global justice organization of the Australian union movement. “These countries are deliberately derailing the convention to protect their dirty industry. Their veto power must be taken away from them through reform of the convention voting system.”
This is particularly detrimental to developing nations that deserve to be properly informed about the deadly materials entering their borders. APHEDA’s latest appeal is to secure funding to see asbestos banned and eradicated in Asian countries, where asbestos use is common.
“Asia is the big push for new sales by the asbestos industry as more countries in other regions ban it,” Hazelton said. “Thanks to an increased awareness of the health impacts of the use of chrysotile, they are looking at the economic and human costs of its use, and the availability of so many safe alternative products, and more and more deciding the long term cost of chrysotile is too much.”
Nations Slowly Coming to Accept Dangers of Asbestos
Although Russia and India remained staunch in their efforts to keep chrysotile off the hazardous substances list, there were some notable countries that stopped defending the asbestos industry.
Seven countries blocked attempts at the 2015 Rotterdam Convention Conference. Two of those nations — Pakistan and Cuba — voted to include chrysotile at COP8.
Canada notably changed its standing at the 2013 meeting, after blocking the vote in 2011, 2008 and 2006. Last year, the Canadian government announced a pledge to ban the import, export and use of asbestos in all forms by 2018.
A longtime producer of asbestos, Canada closed its last asbestos mine in 2012 and was the last Western power to stop endorsing the use of asbestos worldwide.
Vietnam and Ukraine also flipped their previous opposition.
Although the U.S. has never tried to block the inclusion of chrysotile on Rotterdam’s hazards list, it remains one of the few industrialized nations to not have a full asbestos ban in place.
Doctors diagnose roughly 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma in the U.S. annually and approximately 10,000 Americans die each year of conditions related to asbestos.
U.S.-based anti-asbestos advocates shared their frustration over the block of chrysotile’s inclusion on the hazardous substances list.
“Asbestos-related diseases cause great human suffering. Death from difficult to treat cancers and suffocation caused by asbestosis are terrible ways to die,” Dr. Arthur L. Frank, a professor of public health and pulmonary medicine at Drexel University, said in a release from the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. “The callous disregard of some countries for educating workers condemns many to unnecessary and painful deaths.”