Asbestos trade associations from some of the world’s major asbestos industries met in Geneva on the last two days of March to lobby on behalf of white chrysotile asbestos and ensure the interests of importing and exporting the mineral fibres are maintained.

Organised by the Rotterdam Convention for countries which produce, export and/or consume chrysotile asbestos, among the trade bodies present at the ‘The Technical Workshop on Chrysotile Asbestos’ were countries who regularly block the inclusion of the mineral fibres on an import restrictions list.

Attempts by the international community to include white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos on the list of hazardous substances have repeatedly met with fierce resistance by those countries who want to ensure their asbestos mining and export industries are protected.

Increased mining and export

From the 1980s onwards, asbestos awareness to the long term health risks of mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis diseases eventually led to all forms of asbestos to be banned in just 55 countries around the world. As a result, around 16 per cent of the world’s population – an estimated 1.1 billion people were no longer at risk of exposure to the deadly fibre dust.

However, despite being later classified as a class 1 carcinogen, chrysotile asbestos, has long been considered a ‘low risk’ material and continues to be mined and exported. Countries such as Russia and China continued to increase the mining and export of the potential health hazard.

Asbestos ban rejected

Every two years, a meeting of the Rotterdam Convention is held in Geneva to decide which ‘Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides’ require an ‘Informed Consent’ by the country concerned before importation proceeds.

The Convention code of practice requires an unanimous agreement for the proposal to be accepted. However, of the 143 countries who vote, the proposal is always rejected by the seven countries with significant asbestos industries – Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and India.

Latest available figures from a 2012 geological survey show that asbestos consumption in China and India has now risen to around half a million tonnes each year, more than twice the amount of Russia imports of 200,000 tonnes.

Flawed study

India, in particular, has become more vocal in defending its asbestos industry and justifying their use of the veto at the forthcoming convention to prevent import restrictions. A recent study carried out by the National Institute of Occupational Health (India), states that no evidence has been found to show chrysotile asbestos causes harm to the health of workers in India.

The study has been immediately rejected by the President and Dean of Global Health, New York who said that the document was “flawed in the design, methodology and interpretation of the results” and consequently ”has “no scientific credibility” with regard to the safety of chrysotile asbestos.

Scientific organisations and scientists from around the world have also issued a joint statement reconfirming that “chrysotile asbestos causes deadly diseases, such as asbestosis, mesothelioma and other lung cancers, and that it cannot be safely used.” The Indian government is also being urged to withdraw the discredited scientific study and to stop blocking the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance.

Hundreds of cases

The plight of Indian asbestos workers, who only use a cotton scarf tied around their face as their only “safety equipment” continues to raise urgent concerns within the country as well as in the global community.

A series of public meetings have been held to draw attention to the Indian government’s support of the veto in which a press release declares that, ““Contrary to the claims of the asbestos industry and the Indian Government, over 500 cases of disease caused by exposure to white asbestos have been diagnosed from two factories in Mumbai. There have been hundreds more cases diagnosed around the country.”

Obtaining up to date, accurate figures of mesothelioma fatalities among Indian workers is extremely difficult as only 7 per cent of the population is covered by registered population records. It is officially estimated the Indian asbestos industry employs 8,000 workers in the organised sector but most of the workers engaged in the asbestos industry are from the unorganised sector, with 100,000 workers at least exposed every day to asbestos.