Russia and Canada Once Again Block Asbestos Export Restrictions

Contrary to Canada's Position, Chrysotile Asbestos Not Safe

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - Once again, Canada and Russia have blocked an attempt at the Rotterdam Convention to place chrysotile asbestos on a worldwide list of toxic chemicals. Both countries are major asbestos producers and had successfully lobbied at the convention last year against banning asbestos exports.

"Canada and Russia's objections to listing chrysotile asbestos are embarrassingly self-interested, protecting domestic exporters interested in selling this dangerous chemical abroad," said Clifton Curtis, Director of the Global Toxics Program of the Worldwide Wildlife Fund or WWF (Press Release, WWF, September 20, 2004). "Chrysotile unequivocally meets the Rotterdam Convention's requirements, and those governments opposing its listing blatantly disregarded the treaty obligations."

A substance may be placed on the toxics list only after countries in at least two regions have taken action to restrict or ban it, the convention's committee has agreed that the substance is unsafe, and the convention members have unanimously agreed to export restrictions. At this point, exporters cannot ship the hazardous material without obtaining advance government clearance from an importing country.

Australia, Chile, and the European Community notified the Convention Secretariat that they had limited chrysotile asbestos use. The convention's committee agreed that chrysotile was a serious health hazard. However, the export restriction did not move forward because of objections from a group of nations led by Canada and Russia. These countries included Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Columbia, Mexico, Iran, Ghana, India, and China.

The European Union representative strongly supported the asbestos export restriction, noting that failing to include chrysotile as a toxic substance would greatly weaken the authority of the Rotterdam Convention. Egypt, Norway, New Zealand, Tanzania, Argentina, Jamaica, Congo, and Guinea also spoke in favor of the asbestos restriction.

Chrysotile Asbestos

Chrysotile or white asbestos is the most common form of asbestos, accounting for 90% of asbestos in products. The Rotterdam Convention added four types of asbestos other than chrysotile to the export restriction list in 2003. However, every asbestos type is dangerous, and there is no safe level of exposure (see Asbestos: A Hazard to Health). Exposure to all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, can lead to serious diseases such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, and asbestos lung cancer.

In 2003, Russia produced 878,000 tons of chrysotile, and Canada produced 240,000 tons. The United States imported about 97% of its asbestos from Canada that year, all of which was chrysotile. Chrysotile was used mainly in roofing materials, compounds, and coatings. The US also imported $570 million worth of products with an asbestos base, including cement, pipes, and tiles (Asbestos, Robert Virta, Domestic Survey Data for USGS).

The Canadian Asbestos Experience

Most Canadian asbestos is mined and produced in the towns of Thetford Mines and Asbestos, located within the province of Quebec. Workers may also be exposed to asbestos in milling factories such as Black Lake mine where raw asbestos is sifted, graded, bagged and sealed, or on some rural roads where it is mixed into asphalt to provide a durable surface (SBS News Report, September 29, 2004). According to the Minerals and Mining Statistics Division of Natural Resources Canada, Quebec produced 241 kilotons of asbestos during 2002.

Some researchers estimate 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). The Quebec Department of Health is now requiring physicians to report cases of mesothelioma within 48 hours as part of a monitoring effort.

Asbestos exposure is also high in Canada's gasoline and chemical industry belt known as Chemical Valley, which is located in the province of Ontario. One clinic in Sarnia, Ontario, has seen over 600 workers with asbestos-related diseases, and expects to treat even more asbestos victims. In 1986, the Ontario Ministry of Labour established an asbestos registry that lists those who have had 2,000 hours or more of on-the-job asbestos exposure. There are 22,000 names on the list, but only 4,000 have received government packages about medical monitoring, according to the Workers Health and Safety Centre (Winter/Spring 2001 Publication. Click on the article, Accounting for Exposure).

Sales of loose asbestos or products that release asbestos such as fireproofing material, textured ceilings and some types of insulation, are no longer allowed within Canada. However, the automobile industry may still use asbestos in vehicle brake linings and clutch pads. Also, asbestos remains in many buildings and homes, causing problems if the structure is renovated or if workers cut into asbestos-containing insulation, allowing asbestos fibers to become airborne.

The Canadian government continues to support and encourage the export of asbestos and helps to finance the Asbestos Institute, an industry-sponsored group with the goal of promoting the use of chrysotile. Gary Nash, Assistant Deputy Minister of the Canadian Department of Natural Resources claims "We do not believe that the science suggests or indicates that asbestos cannot be used safely...We will do everything that we can, given our limited resources, to ensure and to promote its safe use" (SBS News, Interview by Ginny Stein, September 29, 2004). Meanwhile, the bulk of Canadian chrysotile is exported to Third World countries. Thailand and India have increased their imports in recent years, despite a growing asbestos disease epidemic in these countries.

Some Canadian labor, consumer, and environmental groups find the government's asbestos policy disturbing. A newspaper editorial sums up the problem in this way: "To continue to do what we have been doing means that we are putting local political considerations and our desire for dollars over the health of Canadian workers, and the welfare of the vulnerable people in those economically needy and unregulated nations that are most easily persuaded to buy our toxic mineral...Canada must stop the mining, processing and selling of asbestos, after setting up a mechanism to preserve the security and dignity of its asbestos workers" (Toronto Star editorial, September 21, 2004).

Asbestos in Not Banned in the United States

Almost 10,000 deaths per year in the United States, or close to 30 deaths per day, are due to asbestos exposure (Environmental Working Group report). The substance kills thousands more people than skin cancer, and nearly the number that are slain in assaults with firearms. One out of every 125 American men over the age of 50 dies from asbestosis, mesothelioma, or other asbestos diseases. Despite these chilling statistics, asbestos is still not banned within the United States and the country's representatives at the Rotterdam convention remained silent about chrysotile.

In 2003, Sen. Pat Murray (D-WA) introduced the Ban Asbestos in America Act, which would have prohibited the manufacture, processing, import, or distribution of asbestos-containing products. The bill was easily defeated in 2003, and then in 2004. A weakened version of the ban was tacked on to the Frist/Hatch asbestos bill, S.B. 1125, which later became S.B. 2290.

S.B. 2290 is a flawed piece of legislation that sets up a national trust fund for asbestos victims. The trust would be funded by asbestos-affiliated companies. The bill deprives asbestos victims of their day in court, while forcing them to seek compensation through the trust fund. Both labor and consumer groups have said that the trust is inadequate and would not provide sufficient compensation to those with asbestos-related diseases.

The fund would assign dollar values to different categories of asbestos diseases ranging from asbestosis to mesothelioma. However, these amounts are much less than what has been available through the court system and may not be enough to cover the medical expenses, financial losses, and suffering of asbestos victims. S.B. 2290 also would create a windfall for asbestos-affiliated companies who stand to gain billions because the bill wipes out current pending asbestos settlements.

Democrats, Republication, labor organizations, consumers, and asbestos companies have not been able to come to a compromise about S.B. 2290 so far this year. Recently, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SC) suggested an asbestos trust fund of $145 billion, then changed that proposal to $140 billion, in order to conform to the figure put forth by Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN). A Senate Judiciary committee had previously suggested $153 billion.

With the small amount of time left before Congress adjourns this year, the chances that S.B. 2290 will pass are slim. This is a good result for asbestos victims and their families. The fight is not over yet, however, as Sen. Frist and his colleagues plan to resurrect a similar asbestos plan at the next legislative session.