Rome, Italy-In March of 2008, 120 international signatories to the Rotterdam Convention (RC) met in Rome for their annual, policy making discussions related to the manufacture and distribution of hazardous materials or chemicals. The RC’s purpose is to designate specific materials and/or chemicals as hazardous to human health in order to significantly restrict their distribution around the globe. One such hazardous material, asbestos, has served as the focus of debate amongst the RC signatories, the arguments centered chiefly around the Canadian government’s policy of permitting the massive export of chrysotile asbestos to developing nations around the world.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was once widely prized by numerous manufacturers for a wide variety of products and industrial uses, though, today, asbestos has been largely banned around the world due to the extreme health risks associated with human exposure to the known carcinogen.
When microscopic fibers of airborne asbestos are inhaled into the lungs, they can remain there for up to 50 years before leading to lung diseases such as asbestosis (a severe scarring of the lungs leading to severely impaired lung function), as well as to the far more deadly malignant mesothelioma, an incurable, highly aggressive, and inevitably fatal form of cancer.
Because of the extreme danger of asbestos exposure, the RC has attempted to include the mineral on its list of hazardous materials-an inclusion that would prohibit or severely restrict RC signatory countries from exporting the material to other nations.
Canada Repeatedly Blocks Moves to Limit its Asbestos Production and Exports
In 2006, in sales worth approximately $112 million, Canada produced and exported over 175,000 tons of asbestos to 80 nations around the world. In 2007, asbestos export sales dropped to $77 million, which is indicative of an increased awareness of the dangers of asbestos within importing nations. Nevertheless, as of this writing, Canada continues to export thousands of tons of chrysotile asbestos to countries such as: India; Pakistan; Vietnam; the Philippines, as well as other Asian and undeveloped nations where worker or citizen safety is oftentimes a low priority.
Canada’s refusal to limit its production and export of asbestos has been harshly condemned by nearly all of the signatories to the RC, an organization that cannot prohibit Canada’s asbestos export policy without a unanimous agreement amongst its members to do so-a consensus that has been repeatedly blocked by Canada and a small group of asbestos importing nations. Worse, Canada has also been instrumental in blocking the RC’s attempt to include asbestos on the United Nation’s list of hazardous substances, a list officially known as the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. Such an inclusion would at least ensure that all asbestos importing nations are made fully aware, by the exporter, of the extreme health risks associated with exposure to the cancer-causing material.
Editors at the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) have launched a series of harsh attacks against Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government policy on the exportation of asbestos to the poorer nations of the world. The CMAJ has repeatedly published articles that criticize Harper’s policies, and in an editorial it is stated, “For Canada to export asbestos to poor nations that lack the capacity to use it safely is inexplicable.” One of Canada’s leading newspapers, the Ottawa Citizen, concurred with the CMAJ in an editorial that stated, “Canadians need to recognize that this export revenue comes with a price, as measured in the damage to our international reputation.”