28 June 2011

Canada Slammed for Stance on Asbestos Trade:

Canada last week emerged as the only developed country to oppose the listing of chrysotile asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention, prompting a litany of criticism from around the world. If approved, the known carcinogen would have been listed on Annex III of the hazardous chemicals convention, which would require exporters to warn recipient countries of any health hazards.

The discussions took place in Geneva at the fifth Conference of the Parties (COP 5) to the Rotterdam Convention, which ran from 20-24 June. In addition to chrysotile asbestos, parties were tasked with considering the inclusion of the pesticides endosulfan and aldicarb, as well as the herbicide alachlor in Annex III.

While endosulfan was the only one of the four to become a new addition to the list, it was the asbestos debate that monopolised much of the attention last week in Switzerland.

Canada is one of only a handful of countries - including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Vietnam - that continue to export asbestos. Use of the substance in the developed world - including Canada - has plummeted since the 1970s, when awareness of the respiratory health risks became more widespread.

Asbestos continues to be used in the construction industry of various developing countries, notably China, India, and the Philippines. Canada argues that as long as appropriate safety precautions are observed, the mineral can be used without adverse health effects. But critics argue that such measures are regularly not taken in developing countries, where health and safety standards are typically more lax.

The addition of asbestos to Annex III also played a prominent role when parties last met at COP 4 in 2008. But in the voting process, India - Canada’s primary asbestos trading partner - actively lobbied to keep the substance off the list, thereby allowing Canada to remain silent on the issue (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 14 November 2008).

India’s about-face rattles exporters

Last Wednesday, however, India surprised many delegates by announcing it had reconsidered its previous opposition and would now support the listing. Delhi’s new position on the issue prompted several asbestos exporting countries to reconsider their stance as well; one by one, opposition to the listing soon disappeared. Finding itself alone on the issue, Canada unilaterally blocked consensus. The move reportedly provoked hostility from some delegates.

In the hours following Ottawa’s opposition, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Vietnam again reconsidered their position and realigned themselves with Canada. Ukraine and Kazakhstan maintain there is a lack of scientific data to support listing the substance on Annex III, while Canada has not fully explained its position.

When pressed on the issue on Thursday, Canada insisted that the country has “actively promoted safe and controlled use of the substance domestically and internationally.” But with the use of chrysotile asbestos virtually banned across Canada, critics have accused Ottawa of acting irresponsibly.

When the ruling Conservative government was pressed on the issue by opposition parties back in Ottawa, Industry Minister Christian Paradis staunchly defended the government’s position.

“We know that chrysotile [asbestos] can be used in a safe fashion in a controlled environment,” Paradis told Canadian parliament last week.

But with Paradis’ electoral district being home to Canada’s last remaining asbestos mine, some critics have accused him of promoting policy out of self-interest.

In a final move to express their displeasure at the blockage of asbestos, Australia - supported by the African Group - introduced a declaration by the EU and 66 countries stating that, in their trade practices, they will make every attempt to make information regarding asbestos hazards known. The Declaration also states the countries’ intent to ensure asbestos is ultimately listed in Annex III. Delegates had been discussing potential alternatives for dealing with recommended chemicals that do not manage to achieve a consensus. While the declaration is external to the Convention itself, its existence is noted in the formal meeting report.

Adopted in 1998, the Rotterdam Convention requires exporting countries to obtain prior informed consent (PIC) from importing countries before listed chemicals can be delivered. This is accomplished through the use of proper labelling, safe handling instructions, and the disclosure of any known restrictions or bans.

With the addition of endosulfan, there are now a total of 41 chemicals listed in the convention, including 30 pesticides and 11 industrial chemicals.

ICTSD Reporting; “Pic COP5 Highlights,” EARTH NEGOTIATIONS BULLETIN, 22 June 2011; “Canada blocks move to deem asbestos hazardous,” CBC, 22 June 2011; “Canada Asbestos Debate Rages On at Geneva Summit, Refuses To List Chrysotile As Hazardous,” CANADIAN PRESS, 23 June 2011.

Source: International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development.
27 June 2011

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