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Treaty a “casualty” of asbestos disease
GENEVA 13 OCTOBER 2006: An international treaty designed to protect developing nations from toxic trade has become the latest casualty of the global asbestos industry. Failure to list chrysotile asbestos under a global right-to-know scheme has left the Rotterdam Convention "discredited" health campaigners have warned. They are calling on the United Nations to take urgent action to restore the treaty's credibility.
The call came today after efforts to introduce stringent right-to-know controls on the worldwide trade in chrysotile (white) asbestos were blocked by a Canadian-government sponsored campaign. Together with other asbestos exporting nations, the Canadian-led lobby has again effectively vetoed a widely supported proposal to place chrysotile, an acknowledged and potent carcinogen (cancer causing substance), on the Rotterdam Convention's "Prior Informed Consent" (PIC) list.
This failure of this week's meeting of government representatives in Geneva means export warnings on deadly asbestos shipments will not be required until 2008 at the earliest.
Anita Normark, general secretary of global building workers' union BWI, had been lobbying for the addition of chrysotile to the PIC list. She said: "Asbestos kills one person every five minutes, more than any other industrial toxin. If it can't be listed under the Rotterdam Treaty, then every peddler of hazardous substances will know how simple it is to protect their deadly industrial favourite. The whole process is discredited."
Carl Smith, senior editor for the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (FASE), a US NGO that has published reports on hazardous exports since 1990, said: "Governments of the world have spent decades and countless millions cleaning up after toxic industries. It is baffling that they would allow these same industries to dictate that information which could protect human health and the environment should be withheld."
Laurie Allen, co-ordinator of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS) said: "A handful of unscrupulous governments have done the bidding of the global asbestos industry and defended the continuing, unfettered sale of a prolific workplace and environmental killer. At least 200,000 workers will be killed by asbestos diseases before the proposal to list asbestos can be tabled again."
BWI believes the Canadian government is guilty of criminal neglect. BWI's Anita Normark said: "Asbestos deaths are predictable. Asbestos deaths are preventable. In the short-term that means strict rules governing exports, in the medium term a global ban. In blocking all attempts to introduce these measures, the Canadian government is condemning thousands of workers to a painful and early death and has fatally damaged the treaty too."
The Rotterdam Convention process is coordinated by two UN agencies, UNEP and FAO. The UNEP/FAO Rotterdam Convention secretariat made a clear recommendation that chrysotile met all the criteria for PIC listing. Other UN agencies, the International Labour Office (ILO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have clear policy positions consistent with the arguments put by those advocating PIC listing of chrysotile.
BWI believes the United Nations should have anticipated the actions of the Canadian government and taken measures to stop the Canadian-led lobby once more bringing the treaty into disrepute, the decision not to list chrysotile going against the recommendations of both the UN and the great majority of participating governments.
According to BWI's Anita Normark: "The ILO and WHO both agree the goal is to eliminate the use of asbestos in all member states and to prevent asbestos related diseases. The Rotterdam Convention does not go nearly so far in its objectives - it is not a prohibition on trading deadly materials, such as chrysotile. It is essentially a simple right to know mechanism for export and import of the most hazardous substances. Applying the PIC procedures to chrysotile would provide potentially life saving advice on hazards and how best to control them."
She added: "Of course the commercial interests of the Canadian government are well known, they are determined to protect their asbestos export market at all costs. The UN is well aware of this, so it is surprising that, after this same scenario occurred at the 2004 meeting, that steps were not taken to ensure that the terms of the treaty is respected. Chrysotile meets all the criteria for inclusion, so it is outrageous that this is being blatantly and persistently blocked by Canada. Canada wants to protect and expand their asbestos sales in developing countries by misinformation and deception, and they are with in their rights to do so according to the UN system.
"The question is: Why have such a Convention if the grounds for inclusion are not health based but are driven by commercial interests? It is very clear that there should be an urgent review of the current voting system which allows any country the right to veto a majority decision. In order for the Convention to be credible, there must be a mechanism to prevent this kind of abuse and manipulation.
"We now have to wait another two years before the next meeting. We sincerely hope that, in the meantime, the UN will be so embarrassed by their in-house policy contradictions that they will take steps to resolve this problem."
Notes to Editors
For further information, contact
Fiona Murie, Director of Health and Safety BWI: email@example.com or phone + 41 79 446 12 90
Laurie Kazan-Allen, the IBAS Coordinator by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: + 44 (0) 208 958 38 87
BWI: Building and Woodworkers International; IBAS: International Ban Asbestos Secretariat.
The Rotterdam Convention is a multilateral environmental agreement designed by a United Nations agency to protect vulnerable populations by ensuring that hazardous chemicals which are added to the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list can only be exported with full disclosure and documentation. Although five types of asbestos were PIC listed in 2004, action on chrysotile asbestos was blocked by asbestos stakeholders including Canada, China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and India. At this week's meeting, the asbestos lobby again succeeded in blocking PIC list of chrysotile, despite UN agencies and the Treaty Secretariat accepting if fulfilled all the necessary criteria.
Chrysotile asbestos has been assigned a 'Group 1' cancer rating by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It has been linked to greatly elevated levels of a range of cancers including mesothelioma and lung cancer as well as other fatal respiratory diseases.
The third Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention (COP3) met in Geneva from October 9-13, 2006. Because chrysotile listing was not agreed at this meeting, the status quo will remain till, at least, 2008.
The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 100,000 asbestos deaths a year, one person every five minutes. Other estimates put the global toll much higher.
Asbestos bans and restrictions by industrialized countries have shifted consumption to the developing world. Nowadays, Asian countries consume over 50% of global asbestos production, with the biggest users being: China (491,954 tonnes), India (192,033t), Thailand (132,983t) and Indonesia (75,840t).
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