European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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29 May 2013

Asbestos lobby wins again


Organizations fighting to get the global trade in asbestos banned have suffered a big knockback. Despite hundreds of thousands of deaths and campaigning by victims and their families, trade in chrysotile, the last kind of asbestos to be produced in the world, will be allowed to thrive in the years ahead.

For the fourth time, a small group of countries have ganged up to block chrysotile’s inclusion on the Rotterdam Convention’s list of hazardous chemicals. The international convention was signed in 1998 and came into force in 2004, and establishes a Prior Informed Consent Procedure for international trade in hazardous chemicals and pesticides.

Practically, that means that when a listed chemical is exported, the exporter has to send an export notification to the importing country. The export notification gives information on the product so that the country of destination can decide whether to let it in or not.

At the last meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention held in early May in Geneva, seven countries - Russia, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, India and Vietnam - voted against chrysotile being put on the list.

At the previous conference, in 2011, only Canada had opposed chrysotile being listed. Since then, the country’s last asbestos mine has shut down and the Canadian government has abandoned its policy of unconditional support for the asbestos industry. Canadian asbestos lobbyists continue to beaver away behind the scenes, however. Two other producer countries are carrying the banner forward. Russia and Zimbabwe have recently signed up to the Convention, seemingly in a bid to prevent chrysotile being listed as a hazardous chemical.

"The Convention has been used to protect industry profits rather than public health, and as a result risks becoming a farce," responded Kathleen Ruff for the Rotterdam Convention Alliance, a coalition of NGOs advocating the strict application of the Convention.

While asbestos is banned in the European Union and most developed countries, it is still being sold to many emerging and developing countries.

Data collected by ETUI researcher Laurent Vogel show that chrysotile asbestos is being exported to these countries in increasing quantities, particularly so in India, whose asbestos consumption almost tripled between 1990 and 2007.

The World Health Organization estimates that asbestos causes 107,000 deaths each year from lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer of the pleura or peritoneum) and asbestosis (severe lung disease).

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