Although civilization has used asbestos in manufacturing for centuries, the last seven decades of scientific research found an undeniable link between the mineral and deadly diseases such as malignant mesothelioma. Slowly but surely, responsible companies in industrialized nations have made it a priority to reduce their use of asbestos.
However, developing nations aren’t as fortunate. Their respective economies leave them with few alternatives to accepting exports from richer countries that mine and produce asbestos-containing materials, and that’s an outrageous injustice.
The international trade community had a chance to right this wrong at this year’s United Nation’s Rotterdam Convention. In the days leading up to the meeting, one activist noted a particularly disturbing trend: While one country that advocated for the asbestos industry has stepped down, two others have taken its place as asbestos industry allies.
Canada disappears from industry’s corner
The Rotterdam Convention is an international, U.N.-sponsored meeting in which international trade stakeholders come together and decide whether certain products for export are to be considered hazardous to human health, making them rightfully difficult to peddle.
During the last few assemblies of the Rotterdam Convention, Canada refused to cooperate with international efforts to list chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance. This is appalling, considering that the mineral is considered dangerous within the country’s own borders. Canada’s fight against the Rotterdam Convention on this matter was driven in large part by its once-thriving asbestos industry.
However, in 2011, officials from Quebec announced that they would stop subsidizing the asbestos industry. Kathleen Ruff, co-coordinator of the Rotterdam Convention Alliance, argued that this move is behind what she calls Canada’s new, cynically driven stance on no longer opposing adding chrysotile asbestos to the list of hazardous materials. That’s not to say that Canada will be vocally supporting the move, either, Ruff said.
Two countries fill Canada’s shoes
Ruff’s new concern is that there are two countries that will pick up where Canada left off on the chrysotile asbestos matter as asbestos industry allies: Russia and Zimbabwe.
Here’s how Ruff described the situation in an editorial for The Star in Canada:
“Russia will be attending for the first time as a party to the convention. It has indicated that it intends to use its new status to prevent chrysotile asbestos from being put on the hazardous substance list,” Ruff wrote. “In Russia, with a population of 141 million people, there is not a single scientist or a single scientific organization that opposes the government’s pro-asbestos policy. Or, at any rate, there is not a single scientist or scientific body that dares to do so publicly.”
Additionally, Zimbabwe has indicated interest in reopening its own asbestos mines. Between these two countries, many people will needlessly die from preventable asbestos-induced diseases, including asbestosis and lung cancer.
There are asbestos industry lobbyists who argue that the wealth of scientific information connecting the mineral to health problems has led to safety measures that are adequate enough to not require additional restrictions. However, experts point out that developing countries, some of which have to accept asbestos-tainted exports, don’t have the necessary regulatory bodies to adequately enforce these safety measures.
Let’s not forget how powerful the asbestos lobby is. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a serious crackdown on asbestos use in 1989, but two years later, the industry successfully got most of the ban overturned in federal court. As a result, asbestos is still allowed in many manufacturing processes in the U.S.