MAC: Mines and Communities

Canada to keep asbestos off trade blacklist

Published by MAC on 2008-11-05
Source: PlanetArk Italy (2008-10-30)

ROME - Asbestos, the highly toxic fire-retarding mineral, will not be placed on a global blacklist and will be freely traded for the foreseeable future, Canadian politicians said Thursday.

Pressure from major producer Canada and several developing country importers will prevent diplomats meeting in Rome for the Rotterdam Convention this week from adding chrysotile asbestos to a list of substances recognized as particularly hazardous.

"I can safely say that the initiative is doomed this time," said Pat Martin, a Canadian opposition legislator who is campaigning for asbestos to be added to the list. Another source following the talks also said it was highly unlikely asbestos would be added.

Chrysotile is the only type of asbestos that is still widely used, mainly in building products in developing countries, and Canada is among a small handful of countries that mine it.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal slammed Ottawa in an editorial earlier this month for defending the asbestos industry in the face of widespread evidence the mineral can inflict fatal lung damage and cause cancer.

The 1998 Rotterdam Convention requires exporters of certain hazardous substances to obtain "prior informed consent" (PIC) from importers, a measure meant to ensure that poorer countries do not let in products they may prefer to avoid.

While inclusion on the so-called PIC list does not ban those products, it does highlight their highly toxic nature.

Agreement by all governments that signed the convention is required to add a product to the list. With opposition from importers including India and Pakistan earlier this week, a breakthrough before the meeting ends on Friday is unlikely.

The Canadian cabinet minister responsible for Quebec affairs, Public Works Minister Christian Paradis, told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday that he agreed asbestos would likely remain off the list.

"There isn't consensus," he said. "I've always said the position of the Canadian government up to now has been an approach of safe and controlled use."

But Martin, a member of the leftist New Democratic Party, said the Canada's Conservative government was behind the deadlock as it sought to defend the country's small but politically important asbestos industry.

"Canada's defence of asbestos has nothing to do with reason or logic or economics. It's all about domestic politics, Martin said.

Canada has a single active asbestos mine, located in Thetford Mines, Quebec, that employs 350 people, Natural Resources Canada said on Thursday. Minister Paradis happens to have been born there and represents the town in Parliament.

Martin said both regional and national governments are keen not to upset the asbestos business in Quebec, a French-speaking province with an influential separatist movement.

"They call asbestos the tobacco industry's evil twin -- they both survive on phony research and intense lobbying and sell a product that's a Class A toxin. Not to put it on the list is morally reprehensible," he said.

Canada's asbestos industry lobby group, the Chrysotile Institute, maintains the product is safe if used properly, for example when mixed into concrete where the fibres are fixed and cannot be breathed in.

Martin said the failure to move against asbestos put the credibility of the convention, which meets next in 2011, at risk. "We have allowed commercial interests to take primacy over scientific opinion and that could spell the end of the convention," he said.

(Additional reporting by Randall Palmer in Ottawa, Richard Valdmanis in Toronto; editing by Rob Wilson)

Story by Robin Pomeroy


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