The global nature of the economy makes it difficult for certain public health concerns to remain geographically isolated. That includes asbestos exposure. Thankfully, the strong body of scientific evidence linking asbestos to a range of potentially fatal diseases is proving too difficult for several government groups, as well as non-government organizations, to deny. This is a promising trend, especially in light of the upcoming Rotterdam Convention, an international conference with an agenda that may include adding the chrysotile form of asbestos to its List of Hazardous Substances.
Unfortunately, the asbestos industry is still influential in several pockets of the world. One disturbing story currently unfolding is the participation of a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO) at a recent conference which, according to some people, was coordinated with underlying intentions of obstructing efforts to curb the use of chrysotile.
A news report, published by The Lancet, suggests that this participation also jeopardizes the integrity of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
During the latter half of 2012, the Russian Scientific Research Institute of Occupational Health and other organizers began planning for a conference titled Chrysotile Asbestos: Risk Assessment and Management, which was to take place in Kiev, Ukraine. Many international groups and public health experts suspected that the event had close ties to Russia’s asbestos industry.
An invitation to the conference was extended to Valerie McCormack, a scientist working for the IARC. In light of the suspicious nature of the event, many individuals in the medical community were baffled to learn that McCormack accepted the invitation and would be presenting a paper on asbestos and lung cancer. Furthermore, IARC officials said this would be an opportunity for McCormack to present up-to-date views on the dangers of asbestos.
However, critics say that the paper McCormack presented relied on studies funded by the Canadian asbestos industry, the data was no longer current and the overall risks of asbestos were downplayed.
Outrage precedes upcoming meeting
This upcoming April marks the sixth meeting of the Rotterdam Convention, an international trades meeting that discusses environmental hazards that pose threats to humans. On the List of Hazardous Substances, every form of asbestos is included except for chrysotile, which had been a candidate for addition three times in the past. It was never successfully added to the list because of strong opposition from countries such as Canada, Ukraine, India and Vietnam – all of which eventually reversed their positions as of late 2012.
However, 2013 marks the first time that Russia has veto power at the Convention, and it is expected to put up a fight. The recent conference in Kiev may support arguments to keep chrysotile asbestos off the List of Hazardous Substances.
“The Kiev conference came out of an initiative to destroy the Rotterdam Convention,” Kathleen Ruff, a Canadian human rights campaigner and senior adviser to the Rideau Institute, told The Lancet. “In 2011, those opposing the listing said they wanted a new conference to look at the ‘modern’ data to counteract the Chemical Review Committee’s ruling. Kiev is the result. It is not a bona fide conference, it’s a sham conference, a weapon to undermine the integrity of science, and it’s about more than chrysotile now, it’s about the gutting of a UN convention.”
The international fight goes on
In December 2012, Ruff and her colleagues sent a letter asking the WHO to address the behavior of the IARC in regards to the Kiev conference. To the Rideau Institute’s disappointment, they never got a response.
Most industrialized nations have banned asbestos in an effort to protect their citizens. However, it is still mined, produced and used in developing countries such as China, Brazil and India, according to a report published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Russia is also a major producer of asbestos.