23 September 2004

Asbestos Sparks Controversy at Rotterdam Convention:

Delegates at the first Conference of the Parties of the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, meeting from 20-24 September in Geneva, agreed to add 14 new toxic chemicals, including a lead additive for petrol, to the PIC list. However, chrysotile asbestos — which accounts for 94 percent of the commercial asbestos production and is known to cause cancer — was again blocked from the list by a number of producing countries, including Canada and Russia (see BRIDGES Trade BioRes, 28 November 2003). 

Blue and brown asbestos had already been added to the list previously. Chrysotile asbestos is the first chemical to face significant opposition at the Rotterdam Convention. Many observers raised concerns that this decision might set a precedent for future discussions on economically important chemicals, fearing that economic and trade interests would override environmental and health concerns. “Canada and Russia’s objections to listing chrysotile asbestos are embarrassingly self-interested, protecting domestic exporters interested in selling this dangerous chemical abroad,” said Clifton Curtis, director of WWF’s Global Toxics Programme. The Canadian government defended its action, saying “If added to (the list), that might be perceived by some countries as a signal to ban chrysotile”.

In 2001Canada lost a WTO dispute that it had brought against France’s ban on chrysotile (see BRIDGES Weekly, 13 March 2001). The appellate body for the case found that France’s ban was justified under Article XX(b) of the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which provides a general exception to WTO rules for measures considered necessary to protect human health, and in their ruling said that “carcinogenicity, or toxicity, constitutes, as we see it, a defining aspect of the physical properties of chrysotile asbestos fibres”.

The Rotterdam Convention, which entered into force on 24 February this year, enables member countries to add chemicals to the Convention’s list of toxic chemicals by consensus voting. Chemicals on the list can only be exported from one country to another with the permission of the government of the importing state.

“Treaty Curbs Trade in More Dangerous Chemicals,” REUTERS, 22 September 2004; “Canada blocks asbestos type from global toxic list,” REUTERS, 22 September 2004; “Up to 15 hazardous chemicals and pesticides to be added to trade watch list,” PIC ROTTERDAM CONVENTION, 16 September 2004.

Source: International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD). 23 September 2004

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