Global Plan to Limit Asbestos Exports Blocked

Canada and Russia, Major Chrysotile Exporters, Block Export Limits

GENEVA-December 5, 2003-Canada and Russia, major producers of chrysotile asbestos, managed to block international efforts to greatly restrict exports of the substance. By the terms of the Rotterdam Convention, exporters trading in a list of hazardous substances must obtain advance government clearance from an importing country. European Union members had called a conference to extend the list to include chrysotile, the most common form of asbestos used today. The vote had to be unanimous for any change to take place.

Countries that supported the listing of chrysotile as dangerous included the fifteen European member countries and Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Gambia, Congo, Egypt and Morocco. These countries joined Canada and Russia in keeping chrysotile off the list: Ukraine, China, Zimbabwe, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Colombia.

The conference members did add four types of asbestos other than chrysotile to the export restriction list. However, every asbestos type is dangerous and there is no safe level of exposure (see Asbestos: A Hazard to Health in All Forms). Exposure to all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, can lead to serious diseases such as asbestosis,mesothelioma, and lung cancer.

Canadian Environmental Group Objects to Asbestos Use

"Canada's objection to listing chrysotile is embarrassingly self-interested and makes a mockery of the Convention's intent which is shared responsibility for health and the environmental protection between exporters and importers of harmful substances," said Julia Langer, Director of the International Conservation Program at the Canadian branch of the Worldwide Wildlife Fund, a global environmental group. "Notwithstanding the hazards of asbestos at home, if developing countries really want to buy Canada's carcinogenic asbestos they should only do so with full disclosure."

This comment comes at a time when the Quebec Health Department is showing concern about the extent of asbestos disease among the province's population. Quebec includes the towns of Thetford Mines and Asbestos, where the major occupation is asbestos mining and production. The province produced 241 kilotons of asbestos during 2002, according to the Minerals and Mining Statistics Division of Natural Resources Canada. A recent Quebec government study recommended that the cancer mesothelioma be declared a reportable asbestos disease. The Quebec Health Department is now closely monitoring its occurrence. Early estimates are that about one-third or 60 out of 180 work-related deaths a year in the Quebec workplace are due to asbestos exposure (Montreal Gazette, November 21, 2003).