"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.
Wherever the ban movement is active one notices the presence of anti-chrysotile groups implicitly supporting the replacement products industry, the asbestos abatement industry and law firms. It is not surprising to hear them claim that substitute fibres are certainly safer than chrysotile, even if the safety of these fibres and products are not proven or regulated as is chrysotile. This clearly demonstrates that certain interest groups sought to use the Rotterdam Convention and its PIC procedure as an ends to which this Convention was not intended for from the beginning.
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.