A chunk of chrysotile asbestos mined in Brazil, October 2006. Photo: Eurico Zimbres/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5
- The 10th Conference of Parties of the UN Rotterdam Convention, which controls the official international list of hazardous chemicals, is happening in Geneva from June 6 to 17.
- Annex III of the convention lists substances classified as ‘hazardous chemicals’, and the convention imposes restrictions on their trade in the international market.
- India belongs to a group of seven countries that has opposed the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in Annex III, even though it is a known carcinogen.
In a significant development, the WHO has stated that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos.”
This observation followed a misleading statement by the International Chrysotile Association (ICA) last month. ICA defended the business interests of asbestos companies but overlooked the adverse public health consequences of chrysotile asbestos.
A known carcinogen
Chrysotile asbestos constitutes more than 90% of the world’s asbestos production and is processed into products such as friction materials, asbestos-cement, cement pipe and sheet, gaskets and seals, paper and textiles. The asbestos-cement industry is by far the largest user of chrysotile fibres, accounting for about 85% of all use.
The substance is carcinogenic. According to the WHO, “Exposure to asbestos, including chrysotile, causes cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary, mesothelioma (a cancer of the pleural and peritoneal linings) and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs).”
Asbestos-based products are lethal for workers, their families, consumers and communities in general throughout their life cycle.
The Government of India is aware of these issues. According to a statement published on the National Health Portal in December 2016:
“The burden of asbestos-related diseases is still rising, even in countries that banned the use of asbestos in the early 1990s. Because of the long latency periods attached to the asbestos related diseases, stopping the use of asbestos now will result in a decrease in the number of asbestos-related deaths only after a number of decades. There is no safe use of asbestos and no safe limits set by WHO [and the International Labour Organisation]”.
Yet India’s current official position is the polar opposite: to keep the UN from classifying chrysotile asbestos as a ‘hazardous chemical’.
Indeed, the WHO’s new statement nipped in the bud the ICA’s effort to mislead public opinion ahead of the 10th Conference of Parties (CoP-10) of the UN Rotterdam Convention. This convention controls the official international list of hazardous chemicals.
Members of the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers’ Association of India have been among the directors of ICA. They, as well as those of the Fibre Cement Products Manufacturers Association, have been peddling unsubstantiated claims originating from the ICA, contrary to the WHO’s recommendations.
Taken together, this creates a compelling logic for the Indian delegation to resist the deleterious influence of ICA at CoP-10, which is being held from June 6 to 17 in Geneva.
The Rotterdam Convention
The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade was adopted in 1998. It entered into force on February 24, 2004. It creates legally-binding obligations for countries to implement the ‘prior informed consent’ (PIC) procedure.
In spite of researchers finding white chrysotile asbestos mineral fibres to be carcinogenic, and such information having been published on India’s National Health Portal, the Indian delegation has opposed the inclusion of this material in the UN’s list of hazardous chemicals – technically listed in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention. This unscientific position is also contrary to India’s domestic laws and the government’s submissions in Parliament.
At the very first meeting of the Rotterdam Convention in 2005, the Chemical Review Committee (CRC) under the convention agreed to recommend to the Conference of the Parties that chrysotile asbestos should be listed in Annex III.
The CRC is a group of government-appointed experts established in line with Article 18 of the convention. It evaluates candidate chemicals for possible inclusion in Annex III. Chrysotile is currently included in the PIC procedure as an ‘industrial chemical’.
It has not been listed as a ‘hazardous chemical’, however, thanks to opposition from countries including Brazil and Russia. Considering all previous efforts to garner consensus had been exhausted, Switzerland called for a vote to adopt a new Annexure VII to the Rotterdam Convention at the CoP-9 in 2019. The proposed annex allows parties that do not agree to a compliance mechanism to opt out.
The vote ended with 120 parties supporting the proposal and six opposing it.
Asbestos at the convention
Asbestos companies violate human rights when they expose people to asbestos fibres. In this regard, the Government of India has a duty to protect its people as well as public health – which it can, as a first step, by disassociating itself from countries promoting white chrysotile asbestos.
The issue of chrysotile asbestos has been on the agenda since CoP-3 of the Rotterdam Convention. Australia, Colombia, Canada, Peru, Georgia, Japan, Uruguay, Gabon and many other countries have asked that chrysotile asbestos be listed in Annex III.
But India joined Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Syria, Russia, Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan and the International Alliance of Trade Union Organisations “Chrysotile” to oppose the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in Annex III. Its argument has been that there is a shortage of new evidence of its effects on human health and the environment.
Unfortunately, by assuming this position, India ignores the dispositive evidence provided by the WHO and other researchers around the world. The Indian delegation’s actions have instead been in line with the interests of the Fibre Cement Product Manufacturers’ Association of India – a group of asbestos companies.
Thanks to the opposition of India and the other six countries at CoP-9, the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in Annex III will come up for consideration at CoP-10.
The WHO statement
Against this backdrop, the WHO’s communication on May 23, 2022, is significant. It reiterated findings that it had published in a report in 2014. That report, penned by the Chemical Safety and Health Unit of the UN body, stated:
“No threshold has been identified for the carcinogenic risk of asbestos, including chrysotile. Cigarette smoking increases the risk of lung cancer from asbestos exposure.
… chrysotile is still widely used, with approximately 90% being employed in asbestos cement building materials, the largest users of which are developing countries. Other remaining uses of chrysotile are in friction materials (7%), textiles and other applications.”
The new statement, written by Lesley J. Onyon, a scientist with the Chemical Safety and Health Unit, also added,
“Chrysotile is widely used in building materials and in vehicle parts, where it is not possible to prevent exposure of workers and the general public. Following initial use of chrysotile, the products degrade in situ, and present waste management challenges particularly following natural and other disasters.”
The WHO issued this statement in response to a letter from Rory O’Neill, an occupational health adviser with the International Trade Union Confederation, which flagged the PR campaign being unleashed by the global asbestos lobby. O’Neill is a professor at the University of Liverpool School of Law and Social Justice.
The WHO’s new communication added:
“In developing countries, information about chrysotile toxicity may not be well disseminated and exposure prevention is difficult. Mesothelioma cases do occur in countries producing and using chrysotile, however in many countries there are not adequate systems in place to detect mesothelioma. Therefore an absence of reported cases does not mean there are no cases.”
In response to the ICA’s refusal to admit the harmful effects of “low-level exposure” of chrysotile asbestos, the WHO repeated that “it is not possible to establish safe levels of exposure”.
But the ICA’s claims weren’t the sole trigger for the statement. The UN has also approved a side-event at the CoP-10 in Geneva on June 14, on the theme ‘SDGs: The contribution of chrysotile asbestos’.
The event is being hosted by the global asbestos lobby – which is ironic considering a) the weight of evidence that chrysotile asbestos is carcinogenic, and b) the UN Sustainable Development Goal 3 is centred on the right to health.
If the event proceeds as planned, there is a real risk of it setting an unhealthy precedent, including vis-à-vis the UN’s susceptibility to corporate influence.
Brief for the Indian delegation
Taking cognisance of these developments, the Indian government must change its official brief for its delegation to CoP-10. The current brief states that “the implication of listing of chemicals” in Annex III will lead to a “rise in trade cost”. But this calculus does not factor in a ‘negative externality’: the health cost incurred by the unrestricted trade in hazardous chemicals.
India’s position hasn’t always been aligned with the ICA’s interests. On June 22, 2011, the Indian delegation, led by Mira Mehrishi, additional secretary to the Government of India, had supported the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a ‘hazardous chemical’ at CoP-5 – to standing ovation.
The Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals (DCP) is the designated national authority for industrial chemicals under the Rotterdam Convention. Say one country is exporting an Annex III substance to another country. If the importing country is party to the Rotterdam Convention, it needs to communicate its import policy for the substance to the PIC Secretariat. The exporting party also has to provide an export notification to the importing party. In India, the DCP must examine these notifications and respond to the exporting party.
It does not behove India’s stature to deprive itself of this procedure with regard to the import of chrysotile asbestos.
In January 1995, in the matter of Consumer Education & Research Centre v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India also adopted a resolution by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to eliminate all kinds of asbestos to protect worker, and human, health. The court also asked the Union and state governments to update their laws in light of fresh ILO resolutions.
In June 2006, the ILO adopted a revised resolution on asbestos. It stated that “considering that all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are classified as known human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and by the International Programme for Chemical Safety”, it resolved that
“… the prohibition and elimination of the use of all forms of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials is the most effective means to protect workers from asbestos exposure and to prevent future asbestos-related diseases and deaths.”
But India’s governments have not updated their laws to be in line with the ILO’s 2006 resolution.
To be fair, the Indian government has banned trade in asbestos waste, is making 7,083 railway stations asbestos-free and has enacted the ‘Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code’ 2020, which refers to asbestos as a hazardous substance and asbestosis as a notifiable disease.
As a continuation of these policies, it must (re)adopt the position it took at CoP-5 and allow chrysotile asbestos to be listed as an Annex III substance.
Gopal Krishna is a law and public policy researcher and a lawyer. His dissertation was on the ‘Role and functions of the WTO Tribunal in the Asbestos Case: A review with special reference to the position of India and Brazil’. He has also been editing www.asbetsosfreeindia.org since 2002.