Asbestos Exposure & Bans

Seven Countries Block Rotterdam Convention Efforts to Restrict Asbestos Shipping

Written By:
May 16, 2013
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Written By: Tim Povtak,
May 16, 2013

The Canadian government finally stopped defending the chrysotile asbestos industry, but seven other countries took its place last week at the United Nations’ Rotterdam Convention Conference, blocking all attempts to put the toxic mineral on a hazardous substances list.

It was the fourth time the effort to tighten the worldwide shipping regulations of asbestos failed, but the first when Canada was not stopping the move.

Russia, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and Ukraine all opposed the listing, while Canada remained neutral for the first time. Canada was the last Western power to stop endorsing the use of asbestos worldwide, prompted by public pressure and the closing of its last asbestos mine in 2012.

Although an overwhelming majority of the 143 countries attending the conference favored adding chrysotile asbestos to the hazardous substances list, protocol requires unanimous agreement.

The convention does not ban the trading of hazardous substances, but it makes the exportation more difficult by requiring Prior Informed Consent (PIC) before they are shipped. The PIC allows still-developing countries the right to refuse the shipment, or at least be better prepared for the danger it presents.

Russia Leads in Asbestos Production

Chrysotile has been the most prevalent of the six types of asbestos, but is the only one not on the PIC list. Its extensive use has continued in many still-developing countries, which covet its cost effectiveness, despite its well-known dangers. It also is financially rewarding for the major producers and exporters.

Russia produced approximately 1 million tons of asbestos in 2012, which was more than double the amount produced in China, the second largest producer. This was the first time Russia has been represented at the Rotterdam Convention Conference. It also was the first appearance for Zimbabwe, which is expected to reopen its asbestos mines later this year.

At the last conference in 2011, the Canadian delegation worked behind the scenes to block the hazardous substance listing, which sparked a public outcry within the country and a change in policy.

Asbestos is the naturally occurring mineral that was used so extensively through much of the 20th century for its ability to insulate, fireproof and strengthen most everything. It also has been proven to cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and a variety of other respiratory diseases. Every year, an estimated 10,000 people in the United States die from an asbestos-related disease and more than 100,000 die around the world.

Neither the United States nor Canada has banned the use of asbestos, but both countries strictly regulate its use internally. Asbestos use in the United States peaked in the mid-’70s and has fallen dramatically in the past four decades.

Mesothelioma Not Declining

Because there is such a long latency period (10-50 years) between exposure to asbestos and mesothelioma development, an estimated 3,000 Americans each year still are diagnosed with the disease, which has no cure.

“I’m upset that countries that continue to produce chrysotile, or are considering reopening mines like Zimbabwe, can block action on chrysotile,” said Ken Rosenman, M.D., chief of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Michigan State University. “This will prolong the hazards of asbestos, and cause health risks again in the future. It will continue to lead to a double standard for health because the more developed countries are not using asbestos now.”

Last week’s news produced outrage among the asbestos awareness groups around the world, many of which had believed Canada’s switch had weakened the defense of the asbestos industry. And, like Rosenman told, the still-developing countries using asbestos will face bigger problems in the future.

“Tyrannical forces have this week seized control of the Rotterdam Convention; the United Nations protocol which was born in hope, has today been buried in ignominy,” wrote Laurie Kazan-Allen, coordinator of International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. “The Convention’s impotence allows the status quo to continue. The global trade in deadly asbestos will remain unregulated.”

Kazan-Allen now refers to the countries that blocked the listing as “The Dirty Seven.”

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