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Asbestos Warning Hoped For at UN Convention

asbestos warning

A global asbestos warning at long last is the hoped for outcome of the United Nations Rotterdam Convention currently underway in Geneva, Switzerland. It is an ongoing struggle because of the powerful international asbestos industry interests that profit by keeping things just as they are. But anti-asbestos advocates and Convention delegates who are concerned about human health continue to hope for change. This year we may finally see the changes we long have sought.

Asbestos Warning Part of the Bigger Picture at Rotterdam

Asbestos warning attempts are part of the bigger picture of the UN’s Rotterdam Convention. The Convention focuses on pesticides and industrial chemicals that are of global concern for health or environmental reasons. It is basically a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibilities in relation to the exporting and importing of hazardous chemicals and materials.

Under the Rotterdam Convention, countries nominate chemicals for inclusion in the international PIC (prior informed consent) list.

Impact of Rotterdam Convention PIC List

The PIC listing is a warning, not a ban. The chemicals included on the list are subject to extensive information exchange and obligations related to international trade. Exporting nations are required to provide documentation on the nature of the substance so that importers can make informed decision as to whether or not they are capable of using it safely.

A regulatory decision to place a chemical or material like asbestos on the PIC list for health or environmental reasons is circulated to all involved countries. It has ramifications for exporting and importing products and can impact trade. This is why asbestos-exporting companies encourage their nation’s delegation to vote against adding asbestos to the PIC warning list.

Asbestos Warning Fits Rotterdam Convention Objectives

Asbestos warning labels worldwide clearly fit the objectives of the Rotterdam Convention. The text was adopted on September 10, 1998 at a UN conference in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

The official objectives of the Convention are:

  • Promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts among nations in the international trade of certain hazardous materials in order to protect human health and the environment from potential harm
  • Contribute to the environmentally sound use of those hazardous materials, by facilitating information exchange about their characteristics, by providing for a national decision-making process on their import and export and by disseminating these decisions worldwide

Asbestos Warning Signs Greet Industry Lobbyists

Signs calling for an asbestos warning are displayed on the sides of buses and trains throughout the city of Geneva as asbestos industry lobbyists arrive from pro-asbestos countries Russia, India, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Brazil.

The asbestos warning signs are sponsored by labor unions including IndustriALL Global Union and its affiliates The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union and The Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union. Their messages state:

Asbestos = Death – Every five minutes someone dies from asbestos exposure – For the global ban on all asbestos.

Stop all trade in deadly asbestos – 2 million tons of asbestos are used every year – For the global ban of all asbestos.

Asbestos: all products still deadly – 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at work – For the global ban of all asbestos.

Asbestos Warning Hinted At By UN Official

Asbestos warnings through inclusion on the PIC list have been put forward before at previous Rotterdam Conventions but have not passed because of the influence of asbestos industry lobbyists; notably those from Canada. This time may be different.

The International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), a London-based asbestos monitoring organization, reports that Baskut Tuncak, a UN special envoy on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, said in an official statement that he is “deeply troubled” by the behavior of vested interests who “continue to obstruct the listing of asbestos (as a banned substance) under the Rotterdam Convention…”

Asbestos Ban Previously Thwarted by Canada

At the 2011 Rotterdam Convention, the Canadian delegation surprised many with a refusal to allow the addition of chrysotile asbestos to the official Rotterdam Convention list of substances that require a warning label.

There is some indication that this time around, they may have changed their minds. As IBAS stated in their recent newsletter, “Whether chrysotile will be listed this time around is anybody’s guess. If the industry veto is ended, then the Rotterdam Convention may begin to fulfill its potential.” We can only hope.




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