Monday, October 16, 2006

Don’t you know that you’re toxic?

Following the long tradition of trying to write papers with titles or lyrics from the history of popular music the title of this blog relates to the recent news that "Asbestos Kept Off Global List of Toxic Substances".

It is remarkable that clearly toxic substances are not classified as such because certain Western countries believe that such a classification would result in job losses and have an adverse effect on "trade". Forget the health of those in developing countries - nothing must come in the way of jobs and votes.

GENEVA - Chrysotile asbestos, a known human carcinogen, will remain off a global "watch list" of toxic substances for at least two more years after countries led by Canada blocked consensus in United Nations talks on Friday.

While it is now rarely used in Western nations because of health concerns, asbestos remains common in developing world construction, mostly as an additive to cement.

Parties to the Rotterdam Convention, an international treaty governing trade in toxic substances, failed to agree to add chrysotile, which represents 94 percent of world asbestos consumption, to a list of more than 30 substances about which exporting countries must inform importers before shipping.

"The lack of a decision at this time to list chrysotile asbestos raises concerns for many developing countries that need to protect their citizens from the well-known risks of this hazardous substance," UN Environment Programme chief Achim Steiner said after the Geneva meeting.

Once used widely as an insulating and fireproofing agent in buildings, ships and consumer products, asbestos has been shown to cause cancers of the lung and other organs as well as breathing disorders.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates at least 90,000 people die every year of asbestos-related diseases.

Canada, whose French-speaking Quebec province is a major asbestos producer and exporter, led opposition to its addition to the list, according to environmentalists tracking the talks.


Canadian officials say putting chrysotile asbestos on the list would be tantamount to banning international trade in it and threaten jobs.

But Alexander Mueller of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said listing the substance would not prompt serious restrictions. "It would not constitute a recommendation to ban its global trade or use," he said in a statement.

Proponents such as the European Union, Australia and Chile say the watch list gives poor countries the chance to decide which potentially hazardous products they want to receive and to exclude those they cannot manage safely -- an issue with huge resonance following the dumping of toxic substances in August in the Ivory Coast capital Abidjan.

"At least 200,000 workers will be killed by asbestos disease before the proposal to list asbestos can be tabled again," said Laurie Kazan-Allen of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, who called the failure to act "truly tragic."

But several developing countries including Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and India spoke against the addition of asbestos, largely due to concerns that tighter trade rules would led to pressure for tighter domestic regulations.

Countries will revisit the asbestos issue at a 2008 meeting of the Rotterdam Convention signatories, where they will also consider the addition of tributyl tin, used in paints for ship hulls, and the insecticide endosulfan.

For a related story from PlanetArk see "Ivory Coast Toxic Waste Death Toll Rises to 10"

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