For environmental
occupational health safe
and responsible use

Rotterdam Convention


Common sense triumphs over demagoguery

"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
Aldous Huxley

On September 18th 2004, the Member States of the Rotterdam Convention refused, as was proposed, to include chrysotile in the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure. Numerous countries, representing more than 3 billion people, expressed their views on this subject and stated that the Rotterdam Convention was not the appropriate vehicle to protect the health of workers involved in the commerce, transformation and use of chrysotile.

This is a resounding failure for the European Union, Chile and others dedicated to the banning of chrysotile and leading the battle to force this fibre to join a list of environmentally dangerous pesticides and chemicals. Some of these special interest groups expressed their frustration at having lost the battle by accusing countries, such as Russia and Canada, of having prioritized the economic interests of a few to the detrimental health risk of many.

These gratuitous insinuations should not make us lose sight of the fact that the primary objective of the countries and groups, which supported the inclusion of chrysotile in the Rotterdam Convention; it is the prohibition of the trade of chrysotile in order to benefit replacement fibres. Country supporters of the prohibition of chrysotile - in particular France and Chile - are among the principal producers of substitute products and fibres, such as various celluloses and refractory ceramic fibres. Thus, there are important economic interests at work.

Do not be mistaken. The countries present in Geneva in September all support the laudable objectives of the Convention. But, the majority of those countries were not fooled by behind the scenes maneuvering to use the Convention for commercial benefit. The refusal to include chrysotile in the PIC procedure is not an opposition to providing information to developing countries, but rather the refusal to allow the Europeans and their allies to dictate the rules of international trade. Whatever the anti-asbestos militants claim, it was not information to the workers that was in question, but the simple ban of chrysotile. In an interview by the Associated Press in November 2003, Dr. Reiner Arndt (Chairman of the Interim Chemical Review Committee [ICRC] who had proposed the inclusion of chrysotile on the PIC list), clearly stated that “the treaty is primarily designed to protect developing countries by giving them a simple way to ban imports of products that they fear would be hazardous”.

There is no scientific or medical reason to justify the classification of chrysotile fibre with pesticides and the most dangerous chemicals. Contrary to other products covered by the Convention, the use of chrysotile does not pose an environmental problem. The inherent risks in its use are limited to the workplace. And there is already an international convention: ILO (International Labour Organization) Convention 162 entitled “Safety in the Use of Asbestos”, adopted by 145 countries and which governs the principles of its use.

It’s really a shame that the opponents to a policy which favours a safe and responsible use of minerals and metals use health and environment issues, which are very sensitive to public opinion to support their commercial activities. This approach inevitably translates into exaggeration and denigration thereby colouring perceptions of a population which can no longer differentiate between beliefs and reality.

In this crusade for a worldwide ban of chrysotile, it is evident that major commercial interests are implicated, and nobody, except transnational lobbyists, comes out winner of a commercial war being fought under the auspices of environmental concerns. The attempt to include chrysotile in the PIC procedure would have principally served commercial interests which are light years away from questions of worker health and safety and more importantly to the needs of developing and emerging countries.

The countries that opposed the inclusion of chrysotile to the PIC procedure were concerned that the procedure might involuntarily result in the increased use of replacement products, which have not been adequately evaluated and have the same or even higher risk potential. The inclusion of chrysotile, excluding other industrial fibres used in replacement products, would have been discriminatory. It would have imposed an imbalance in the international trade of industrial fibres. Industries competing for the same markets as chrysotile would have an unfair advantage for several reasons, of which: exemption from bureaucratic tasks; and, not being associated with a list of highly toxic chemicals. Moreover, the results of the recent biopersistence studies demonstrate that a good number of replacement fibres are more persistent and very probably more hazardous to health than is chrysotile.

The simple fact is that the inclusion of chrysotile to the PIC procedure would have been interpreted as a call for a ban and the substitution of chrysotile by replacement products. And, this consequence is against the expressed will of a large number of countries and their governments that favour the controlled and responsible-use policy.

Rotterdam Convention adopted

On September 10, 1998, in Rotterdam (Netherlands), 165 countries adopted the Rotterdam Convention. In order for it to come into force, 50 countries had to adopt and sign the Convention, which is the case since February 24, 2004. Jointly administered by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Convention promotes the shared responsibilities and cooperative efforts among the Parties for the international trade of certain very hazardous chemicals, in order to protect human health and the environment from potential harm.

Article 2 of the Convention is clear on this. 
It defines a “chemical” as a substance by itself or in a mixture or preparation that may be manufactured or obtained from nature, but does not include any living organism. Chemicals consist of the following categories: pesticides (including severely hazardous pesticide formulations) and certain industrial chemicals.

In other words, the Convention covers pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted for health or environmental reasons by Parties and which have been notified by Parties for inclusion in the PIC procedure. One of the main provisions of the Convention is the obligation to inform other Parties of any national decision prohibiting or strictly regulating a product, and if a Party intends to export a product, it must inform the importing Party that this export is planned, prior to the first shipment and every year thereafter. This means that formal permission must be obtained to export to a particular country; the exporting Party must also ensure that a material safety data sheet is sent to the importer, and every export shipment must be clearly labelled.

The Convention as a whole creates extremely restrictive legal obligations for the application of the procedure known as ‘Prior Informed Consent’ (PIC).

At present, 31 product notifications are being examined: 21 pesticides, including 5 severely hazardous pesticide formulations; and 5 industrial chemical products, amongst which the various asbestos fibres types – including chrysotile asbestos – but excluding crocidolite asbestos, which was prohibited by the Convention from the outset.

To put this issue properly in context, it must be understood that a substance undergoing the PIC procedure first has to go through the Decision Guidance Document (DGD) phase. This document contains information concerning the chemical and the regulatory decisions to ban or severely restrict it. Since chrysotile was suggested for the list of products subject to the PIC procedure, the DGD has been distributed to all importing countries; they are given nine months to prepare a response concerning the future import of that chemical. Their response can consist of either a final decision (to allow import of the chemical, not to allow import, or to allow import subject to specified conditions); or an interim response.

In other words, if someone wants to export a product that is covered by the Rotterdam Convention’s PIC procedure, they have to obtain formal permission from the importing country.

Given the clear, scientifically documented dangers of these pesticides and chemicals, we fully understand the concerns that led to the Rotterdam Convention. The participating nations made very sure that one of the central criteria was that a degree of regulation had been introduced after proper evaluation of the risks using an analysis of scientific data in the context of the country involved. The objective of the Convention is to promote environmentally sound use of hazardous chemicals and pesticides.

In 2002, the European Union and Chile demanded that the DGD recommend including chrysotile fibre to the list of products subject to the Rotterdam Convention’s PIC procedure. Canada signed the Convention and joined the review committee. This means we can examine the files at all stages of their preparation, provide comments, and if necessary, state our objections to the exclusion or inclusion of a particular product in the PIC procedure.

As we know, the European Union opted to ban the use of chrysotile fibre, and Chile decided to follow suit. Even though scientific data and studies do not justify such a decision, it was still taken. But the fact that the decision was taken should not lull us into submission. In fact, making chrysotile subject to the PIC procedure is part of their overall campaign to obtain a worldwide ban on chrysotile. This would benefit substitute products and industrial fibres of which the countries involved are major suppliers. Clearly, economic interests are at play. And, Canada should not shy from defending its economic interests and jobs. And the same goes for any country.

Including chrysotile is inappropriate, unjust and discriminatory. Canada has to realize this and react quickly.

Inclusion of chrysotile is inappropriate because it is widely recognized that chrysotile fibre can be used safely and responsibly. The safe use policy implemented by the Governments’ of Canada and of Quebec has proven to be effective. This policy has been in force since the early 1980s, and Canada has always supported it and promoted it, at home and around the world. The Governments’ of Canada and Quebec, the unions and the industry, created the Chrysotile Institute, committed to the implementation and promotion of the safe and controlled use of chrysotile fibre worldwide.

Our governments also acquired the necessary tools to set the record straight regarding the hazards inherent in the family of the asbestos fibres; solid data based on serious studies was compiled, and baselines were established so that the toxicity, technical properties and economic aspects of chrysotile could be accurately compared with other fibres actually on the market.

We were determined to protect the health of workers. We therefore provided the international community with new expertise in industrial hygiene regarding chrysotile use; we also unequivocally supported the banning of certain types of asbestos fibres, the amphiboles, both at home and abroad. This ban is now in force, making chrysotile the only type of fibre in the asbestos family still on the market.

The Chrysotile Institute, with our governments, unions and the industry, made intensive efforts to ensure that people everywhere adopt for the controlled, responsible use approach, and develop appropriate work practices and effective safety measures to protect the health, safety and physical integrity of individuals, and disseminate this information to consuming countries.

We supported the chrysotile industry, which over the years has become a model of prevention, safety and control. Few other countries or industries producing potentially hazardous substances have devoted as many resources and as much energy as we have to combat the potential risks associated with a product use. We are an exception and proud of this. The fact that consuming countries today have at their disposal effective regulatory and safety tools such as ILO Convention 162, unanimously adopted in 1986 by more than 140 countries, and the fact that the international profile has been transformed, is testimony to our unwavering dedication to our original mandate.

We have fought the unjust and irrational attempt to ban chrysotile worldwide, and we were right. We denounced extremist arguments. And, although our resources were limited, we funded research studies and serious analysis producing informative findings, which were disseminated in Canada and all over the world.

All this hard work has paid off: working conditions have improved and jobs have been protected. Through research and development focusing on fibres, the promotion of responsible, as well as technical cooperation, information and training seminars and workshops, and air monitoring and control programs in more than 60 countries around the world, we have helped dozens of governments, companies and unions to introduce regulations and implement safety measures to protect the health of workers and the general population.

Again, to include chrysotile is unjust because most of the items subject to the PIC list are chemicals that are banned or in the process of being banned, and pesticides recognized as severely hazardous to public health and the environment. But, unlike chrysotile, none of these products are regulated by an international agreement as stringent in scope as Convention 162, nor are there any policies for the safe, responsible use of these products requiring personal safety be assured by producers and consumers.

An attentive reading of the Rotterdam Convention reveals that it was created to manage an anarchic trade of severely hazardous pesticides and chemicals that have an unquestionable and severe impact on the environment. The Convention sets out to either ban or strictly regulate such substances for general health reasons or to protect the environment. In other words, the Convention does cover occupational health protection. It has to be emphasized that chrysotile has never posed a threat to the environment and, as ILO International Convention 162 states, the hazards associated with its use are restricted to the workplace.

Unlike the pesticides and chemicals covered by the Convention, its use is strictly regulated; the responsible use policy supported by Canada and Quebec means that the situation pertaining to chrysotile is simply not comparable to that of the other substances, which are unregulated. The chrysotile trade and the use of chrysotile are well supervised, and certainly not anarchic. Both are conducted safely and responsibly, with the express aim of protecting the health and physical integrity of persons. This is an occupational health issue, which is more than adequately managed by the implementation of the responsible use policy. The application of the PIC procedure to chrysotile is a patent attempt to discriminate chrysotile in favour of substitute fibres and alternative products in a market where chrysotile is their only serious competitor.

Chrysotile fibre has been present in the atmosphere since the creation of the universe: it is found in the soil of every continent. Levels of inhalable dust are so low that they pose no measurable danger for humans, or the environment. Dust levels in the workplace have been reduced so dramatically that the risk is now no higher, and is usually lower, than that, in particular, of the chemicals industry. In fact, in many cases, the risk is clearly lower.

Let us take the example of silica, which is found everywhere in the environment, and in the workplace. Exposure to excessively high levels of silica has been, and continues to be, disastrous for workers. Stringent workplace controls have had to be introduced over the years. Silicosis causes pulmonary disorders and ultimately many deaths. Yet, this substance is not proposed for inclusion in the PIC list because, rightly so, the problem is being addressed through intervention in the workplace. Just as with chrysotile fibre, the use of appropriate control methods are the obvious response, as this is an occupational health issue.

Canada must not fall into the trap laid by the European Union and Chile. We are well aware that these countries are spearheading an aggressive international campaign against chrysotile, to ensure the lion’s share of a lucrative market and protect jobs in their flourishing plants manufacturing replacement products and fibres. We understand this is a trade war. A trade war which, unfortunately, is not based on concern for health and safety, whatever they may say. Solidarity, even on a health issue, soon wears thin when commercial interests are at stake.

We urgently need to place the chrysotile debate in a more rational perspective and set the record straight. In any event, to bring matters to their logical conclusion, and if protecting health and the environment are really paramount, why not include on the PIC list, the 884 products that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies as known, probable or possible carcinogens, as well as the substitute fibres and alternative products to chrysotile that are recognized as hazardous. Of course, such an approach would be extremely disruptive to international trade and could even verge on the ridiculous. So, we must apply discernment, prudence and far-sightedness before proposing inclusion of certain products to the PIC list of the Rotterdam Convention.

Replacement fibres and alternative products should be strictly monitored.

On December 17, 2002 the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment (CSTEE) published an “opinion” on the risks for human health associated with chrysotile and organic substitutes. The committee issued this opinion pursuant to an obligation in the directive adopted by the European Commission in 1999, stipulating that the Commission was obliged to ask the CSTEE “to undertake a further review of any new scientific data on the health risks of chrysotile asbestos and its substitutes before 1 January, 2003; whereas this review will also consider other aspects of this directive, in particular the derogations, in the light of technical progress; whereas, if necessary, the Commission will propose appropriate changes to legislation”.

The CSTEE has already issued two “opinions” on this matter: the first on February 9, 1998 in connection with a study conducted by Environmental Resource Management; and, the second on September 15, 1998.

The CSTEE posed the following question: “On the basis of the available data, do any of the following substitute fibres pose an equal or greater risk to human health than chrysotile asbestos?” Its response was that in the case of cellulose fibres, PVA fibres and p-aramid fibres, particular consideration should be given to the relative risk to workers and other users of the asbestos-containing products in comparison to non-asbestos products.

Basing its opinion on the limited data available, the CSTEE strongly recommended that toxicology and epidemiology studies be conducted on these replacement fibres and on the technology for developing replacement fibres. As regards cellulose, it added that this fibre “is a matter of concern” … which is an understatement.

More recently, two studies on biopersistence were published in Inhalation Toxicology, a journal highly respected by the scientific community. These studies deal with Canadian chrysotile asbestos and Calidria chrysotile which was mined in California. Both studies clearly demonstrate that fibres like cellulose, aramid fibre and refractory ceramic fibre (RCF), which are increasingly being used as so-called healthier alternatives to chrysotile, are clearly more biopersistent (retention of fibres in the lungs), and hence more dangerous than chrysotile.

Again, these studies, and other earlier ones, confirm beyond any doubt that:

  • chrysotile can be used safely and responsibly;
  • there is a tremendous difference between chrysotile and amphiboles;
  • more extensive studies are urgently needed to provide additional information about the hazards of substitute industrial fibres;
  • substitute products and fibres have never been proven safer than chrysotile in terms of protecting worker health and safety, and they are not regulated as is the case of chrysotile.

This is discriminatory as the proposal by Europe and Chile to include chrysotile on the PIC list, curiously enough, excludes all other industrial fibres on the market. Thus, they want to protect those replacement fibres and products from the restrictions imposed by the PIC procedure, isolating chrysotile to better force it out of the market. The reason why chrysotile is proposed to be added to the PIC list is to make trading in it extremely difficult. And guess what? The countries backing this proposal also happen to be major exporters of these replacement products.

Of course the other fibres, which would be excluded from the PIC procedures, would be protected from the avalanche of commercial complications imposed on chrysotile. This is blatantly discriminatory and suspect, because nothing justifies this twisting of generally accepted market rules.

Even though there are very few epidemiological studies on the long-term health effects of fibres like cellulose, para-aramids and other industrial fibres, the request by the European Union and Chile expressly targets chrysotile alone. This position is clearly more political than scientific, and is sure to increase the anti-chrysotile feelings favouring substitute fibres, even though it is well known that they have never been proven to be harmless. The fact that the chrysotile industry and its workers did their homework, recognized the hazards, minimized the risks and implemented improved health and safety measures in the workplace is altogether a remarkable achievement, and should not through discrimination have all these efforts nullified in one shot.

We realize that this is another diversionary tactic designed to make people forget that countries which opted for a controlled approach and which, like Canada have demonstrated a responsible approach to safe workplace practices, are way ahead of the Rotterdam Convention. The chrysotile industry has been implementing the responsible use policy for more than 20 years. Furthermore, this natural fibre has unique properties and substitute fibres cannot really fulfill the same role. Moreover, it is an inexpensive, natural product, readily available and very durable, and energy friendly, which makes it a lot more affordable for the poorest countries. Competing interests have concluded that chrysotile must be destroyed because alternative materials cannot compete.

An approach that is arbitrarily and unfairly detrimental to the marketing of chrysotile is also harmful to the poorest populations, in urgent need of infrastructures to improve their quality of life.

Canada should not be influenced by vested groups who are falsely alleging that failing to regulate the trade of chrysotile under the PIC procedure would be environmentally irresponsible. Those countries, which have opted for a controlled approach as opposed to those who have simply banned chrysotile, have demonstrated a genuinely responsible attitude in correcting the inadequate occupational health and safety practices of the past in the chrysotile industry. This is a new era; people can no longer claim that there is no difference between the present and the past. The real evolution and major improvements cannot be ignored.

We do not ever want to blindly contest the fact that past exposures to high levels of the various types of asbestos fibres caused asbestos-related diseases during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Nor have we ever claimed that chrysotile is completely inoffensive. But we refuse to accept (as is being suggested) that past problems should be attributed to today’s reality, without any accurate distinctions made in the analysis and argument. The chrysotile PIC pro-inclusion faction is presenting too many arguments full of half-truths and omissions. They are even hinting that the game is over, that the vote in September is just a formality. Even the FAO has done this, in its press release of February 24, 2004 stating that chrysotile was definitely included in the PIC list. This is an insult: there is no other way to describe the behavior of the FAO, which is supposed to responsibly administer the Rotterdam Convention in an honest, unbiased manner (aren’t they doing a great job!). A copy of the FAO press release is attached.

In the chrysotile debate, the agenda has too often been tainted with half-truths and bad faith. It is high time to react and denounce this. The simple truth is this: today, chrysotile is used in high-density products in which the fibre is encapsulated in a matrix. Chrysotile is no longer flocked or used in friable products. And, there are extremely stringent laws and strict regulations in place, which ensure that this is the case.

We regard this as a major call for justice. We must no longer be deceived by strident, inflammatory statements or sensationalist headlines. It is important to set the record straight and make sure that good common sense is allowed to rule. There must be an end to the confusion and fear-mongering. We now have relevant studies showing that we can and do use chrysotile safely, thanks to the determination of the unions and industries. Backed by our governments, they are ensuring that countries which use chrysotile are taking responsibility for protecting people’s health.

And let us be clear. We know that we can and must safeguard an industry that offers quality jobs and provides its workers and the general population with working conditions and living conditions that are just as safe as, if not safer than, many other types of industries, particularly the chemicals and pesticides industry. We are talking here about jobs: Canadian and Quebec jobs, our own peoples’ jobs, the economy of our regions and the very survival of an industry. An industry that now has healthier practices and a proven track record of assuming its responsibilities to the full. This time, our delegates at the Geneva discussions in September 2004 must not hesitate. The right decision must be taken, and they must clearly state their opposition to including chrysotile in this convention.

At stake: unemployment, or decent, safe jobs for hundreds of workers in the chrysotile industry.

We think you will agree that it is reasonable to demand that countries like the European nations or Chile accept that Canada is acting in good faith in opting for the controlled and responsible use of chrysotile. Countries that have democratically made an informed decision to adopt the controlled use policy are entitled to do so without being constantly judged and harassed by those in favour of a ban. Each side should respect the other. It is time for certain countries to behave a bit more rationally on this issue. If people who are against chrysotile asbestos want to be respected, we are entitled to demand as much respect in return.

Many countries agree with us that chrysotile should be excluded from the PIC procedure of the Rotterdam Convention, and wish to express this view by voting against the proposal at the September 2004 meeting in Geneva. This time, it must be categorically rejected.

As you know, this decision will be of crucial importance for the chrysotile industry, its workers, the regions that depend on it, and the economy of Quebec and Canada.

Finally, the Rotterdam Convention group has just asked the World Health Organization (WHO) for a scientific review of replacement products and fibres. This request, which is most important and also highly appropriate, should not go unnoticed; it should receive the attention it deserves. The very fact that this application to the WHO had to be made shows what a mess this whole issue is; it typifies the inconsistency and improvisation that have always characterized the debate.

Putting chrysotile fibre on the list of products covered by the Rotterdam Convention and making this fibre undergo the PIC procedure cannot be justified as a measure for protecting people’s health or the environment. Chrysotile should be excluded: it is in no way comparable to extremely hazardous pesticides or chemicals that are either banned or very strictly regulated, nor is it comparable to amphiboles, which have been banned from the international market for over 20 years.

In closing, let us be precise at to what the Chrysotile Institute is. The mandate given to the Chrysotile institute is not to promote the use of asbestos, and this is a known fact. Our mandate is to promote the safe and responsible use of chrysotile. There is a big difference between the two. Of course, certain people and certain groups constantly and maliciously bury this truth under false and biased information. Under the aegis of health and protection of workers, they use the history of past uses of asbestos (confusing all fibres), and dramatic errors with heavy consequences. At the same time, never explaining the reason such a situation arose, which is obviously of the past and not of the present.

The Asbestos dilemma: I. Assessement of risk
The Asbestos dilemma: II.The ban

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