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International Imports of White Asbestos: the Rotterdam Convention

UN flog2.jpegAs part of Global Asbestos Awareness Week, we discuss the U.N. Rotterdam Convention or RC, a major international agreement that concerns asbestos. At an upcoming Geneva conference, 157 member nations face a controversial issue concerning chrysotile asbestos. The RC requires member countries to notify one another and receive consent to import certain toxic chemicals.

Whether to add chrysotile asbestos to that list of chemicals is in dispute.

According to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. has signed but not ratified the RC, but "participates as an observer ... and in technical working groups."

Asbestos Control Internationally

All six types of asbestos cause serious and fatal diseases. The most commonly mined and used is chrysotile or white asbestos. The World Health Organization or WHO reports that chrysotile is used mostly in cement for construction, especially in developing countries.

Unfortunately, only some countries have total asbestos bans. Those without bans may have some regulatory controls, like the United States.

The International Ban Asbestos Secretariat or IBAS advocates a global ban and reports that as of February 18, 59 countries had total bans. Notably missing are Russia, China, Brazil, Kazakstan and India, which are both leading producers and consumers of asbestos.

The RC Controversy about Chrysotile Asbestos

Last month, IBAS posted an article about the upcoming RC controversy over adding white asbestos to the list of Annex III (of the RC) chemicals, also called the PIC list. Basically, additions must be agreed to by all member countries.

The other five kinds of asbestos are Annex III chemicals, but a handful of countries have objected to adding chrysotile. According to a new Hazards Magazine article, there has been debate between the asbestos lobby and industry, and health experts about chrysotile's dangers. This controversy may have contributed to chrysotile being left off the PIC list.

Under consideration at the upcoming meeting is a proposed RC amendment to allow the addition of a chemical by agreement of 75 percent of the members at the meeting when complete consensus cannot be reached. This change would allow a chemical like chrysotile asbestos to be added when there is almost overwhelming support, but just a few countries object.

According to the IBAS, the outcome of this meeting could make or break this important international agreement that attempts to impose some border control over the international movement of asbestos in trade.

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