Kathleen Ruff Op-ed: Russia, Zimbabwe pick up the asbestos baton from Canada

Canada is no longer in the asbestos business but its message is clear: if you can make money from a hazardous substance, then oppose safety requirements.

Kathleen Ruff
Toronto Star
May 5, 2013

In February last year, an Italian court sentenced two asbestos industrialists to 16 years in prison for criminal conduct in having for years covered up the hazards of asbestos and failed to implement safety measures.

As a result of this coverup, thousands of workers and nearby residents of their Eternit asbestos-cement factory at Casale, Italy, died painful deaths from asbestos-related diseases. And the death toll at Casale continues to rise.

Yet the asbestos industry is fighting to carry on this same deadly coverup today. To date, Canada has been the industry’s chief political ally in achieving this goal. But this is about to change.

At the UN Rotterdam Convention conference in Geneva this coming week, asbestos lobbyists will be working to defeat the recommendation of the convention’s expert scientific committee to put chrysotile asbestos on the convention’s list of hazardous substances.

The convention does not ban trade in hazardous substances; it simply requires that countries act responsibly and obtain prior informed consent before shipping a listed hazardous substance to another country. This allows developing countries — where asbestos and most hazardous substances are shipped nowadays — to be informed of the dangers. They thus have the right to refuse the product or, at least, have a better chance of protecting their population from harm.

This will be the fourth time that the recommendation to list chrysotile asbestos as hazardous will be presented to the UN conference. Chrysotile asbestos represents 95 per cent of all asbestos used over the past century. The scientific consensus is clear that all forms of asbestos cause deadly diseases. Other forms of asbestos are already on the convention’s list but not chrysotile asbestos, representing 100 per cent of the global asbestos trade today.

At previous conferences, Canada played the role of saboteur-in-chief, refusing to allow chrysotile asbestos to be put on the list. Even though chrysotile asbestos is listed as a hazardous substance under Canadian law, Canada maintained that, once it left Canadian shores (as virtually all of it did because Canadians did not want asbestos in their homes and schools), it should no longer be treated as a hazardous substance.

At the last conference in 2011, when, finally, consensus had been reached to list chrysotile asbestos, Canada alone refused consent, single-handedly blocking the listing.

The Harper government has stated that it will not block the listing at the upcoming conference. But this turnaround is not because the government supports the convention’s mandate of health protection. Instead, it is for totally cynical reasons.

Harper’s Quebec lieutenant, Christian Paradis — a longtime ally of the Quebec asbestos industry — explained that, since the new Parti Québécois government has refused to subsidize the bankrupt Quebec asbestos industry, thus causing its shutdown, there would be no point in Canada blocking the listing of chrysotile asbestos.

Canada’s message to the world is clear and sordid: if you can make money from exporting a hazardous substance, then oppose safety requirements, as they might damage profits. If you have no vested interest, then don’t bother to oppose.

If other countries follow Canada’s example, the convention becomes worthless.

Canada does not even intend to support the listing of chrysotile asbestos. Instead, it will maintain a cowardly, ambiguous silence.

This week, Russia, the world’s biggest asbestos exporter, will take over Canada’s role of sabotaging the convention. Of the 1 million tons of asbestos exported in 2011, Russia exported 750,000. Russia, therefore, has a big financial interest in the continued uncontrolled export of asbestos and continued coverup of its hazards.

Russia will be attending for the first time as a party to the convention. It has indicated that it intends to use its new status to prevent chrysotile asbestos from being put on the hazardous substance list. In Russia, with a population of 141 million people, there is not a single scientist or a single scientific organization that opposes the government’s pro-asbestos policy. Or, at any rate, there is not a single scientist or scientific body that dares to do so publicly.

Zimbabwe also will be attending as a party for the first time and also plans to oppose the listing. Zimbabwe wants to reopen its asbestos mines and resume asbestos exports. Safety measures are not on its wish list.

Canada’s heartless asbestos legacy lives on, inherited by Russia and Zimbabwe. Many will die painful, unnecessary deaths as a result. We have a lot to answer for.

Kathleen Ruff is co-coordinator of ROCA (Rotterdam Convention Alliance) and will be attending the Geneva conference.

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