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Canada is not longer in the asbestos business but its message is clear: if you can make money from a hazardous substance, then oppose safety requirements.
Kathleen Ruff is co-coordinator of ROCA (Rotterdam Convention Alliance) and will be attending the Geneva conference.
In February last year, an Italian court sentenced two asbestos industrialists to 16 years in prison for criminal conduct in having for years covered up the hazards of asbestos and failed to implement safety measures.
As a result of this coverup, thousands of workers and nearby residents of their Eternit asbestos-cement factory at Casale, Italy, died painful deaths from asbestos-related diseases. And the death toll at Casale continues to rise.
Yet the asbestos industry is fighting to carry on this same deadly coverup today. To date, Canada has been the industry’s chief political ally in achieving this goal. But this is about to change.
At the UN Rotterdam Convention conference in Geneva this coming week, asbestos lobbyists will be working to defeat the recommendation of the convention’s expert scientific committee to put chrysotile asbestos on the convention’s list of hazardous substances.
The convention does not ban trade in hazardous substances; it simply requires that countries act responsibly and obtain prior informed consent before shipping a listed hazardous substance to another country. This allows developing countries — where asbestos and most hazardous substances are shipped nowadays — to be informed of the dangers. They thus have the right to refuse the product or, at least, have a better chance of protecting their population from harm.
This will be the fourth time that the recommendation to list chrysotile asbestos as hazardous will be presented to the UN conference. Chrysotile asbestos represents 95 per cent of all asbestos used over the past century. The scientific consensus is clear that all forms of asbestos cause deadly diseases. Other forms of asbestos are already on the convention’s list but not chrysotile asbestos, representing 100 per cent of the global asbestos trade today.
At previous conferences, Canada played the role of saboteur-in-chief, refusing to allow chrysotile asbestos to be put on the list. Even though chrysotile asbestos is listed as a hazardous substance under Canadian law, Canada maintained that, once it left Canadian shores (as virtually all of it did because Canadians did not want asbestos in their homes and schools), it should no longer be treated as a hazardous substance.
At the last conference in 2011, when, finally, consensus had been reached to list chrysotile asbestos, Canada alone refused consent, single-handedly blocking the listing.
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