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No consensus on chrysotile asbestos

11 October 2006 - Unable to reach a consensus yet on adding chrysotile asbestos to a global trade watch list, the member Governments of the Rotterdam Convention have decided to postpone a final decision to their next meeting in 2008.

The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade promotes transparency and information sharing about potential risks to human health and the environment. Its so-called PIC list currently contains 39 hazardous substances, including all other forms of asbestos.

"The international community has agreed on the need to strengthen global cooperation on managing chemicals risks, said Executive Director Achim Steiner of the United Nations Environment Programme, which, together with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, provides the Conventions secretariat.

The lack of a decision at this time to list chrysotile asbestos raises concerns for many developing countries that need to protect their citizens from the well-known risks of this hazardous substance. While discussions continue over the next two years, exporters should feel a special responsibility to help importers manage chrysotile safely," he said.

The inclusion of chrysotile in the Convention would improve the ability of countries to address its potential risks; it would not constitute a recommendation to ban its global trade or use. With many more actively traded chemicals likely to be considered for inclusion in the future, it is important now to think through the precedent that we may be setting for the Convention, said Alexander Mueller, Officer-in-Charge of FAOs Department of Agriculture, Biosecurity, Nutrition and Consumer Protection.

During the conference, many governments expressed serious concern about the failure to list chrysotile asbestos at this time. The World Health Organization made a statement reminding participants that chrysotile is a human carcinogen and that at least 90,000 people die every year of asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Last February, a panel of experts determined that chrysotile, which is used primarily in cement products and accounts for some 94% of global asbestos consumption, meets the Conventions conditions for listing. A key requirement is that two countries from two different regions must have banned or severely restricted the particular chemical (in the case of chrysotile, these countries are Australia and Chile, as well as the EC). Todays conference accepted the panels conclusions.

Under the Convention, exports of chemicals and pesticides on the PIC list require the prior informed consent of the importing country. This gives developing countries in particular the power to decide which potentially hazardous chemicals or pesticides they want to receive and to exclude those they cannot manage safely.

Exporting countries are responsible for ensuring that no exports leave their territory when an importing country has made the decision not to accept the chemical or pesticide in question. In this way the Convention establishes a first line of defense against the kinds of accidents and tragedies that have occurred too frequently in the past.

The asbestos issue will be reconsidered in 2008 at the Fourth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-4). At this conference Governments will also decide on the next round of proposed additions to the watch list. One of these proposals involves tributyl tin (TBT), which is used in anti-fouling paints for ship hulls and is toxic to fish, molluscs and other organisms. The other addresses endosulfan, an insecticide that is widely used around the world, particularly for cotton.

In addition to the binding PIC list, the Convention establishes a non-binding information-exchange system. The conference encouraged governments to use this system to inform others about their national decisions on the import and management of chrysotile asbestos.

Some 70,000 different chemicals are available on the market today, and around 1,500 new ones are introduced every year. This can pose a major challenge to regulators charged with monitoring and managing these potentially dangerous substances. Many pesticides that have been banned or whose use has been severely restricted in industrialized countries are still marketed and used in developing countries.

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