Asbestos and Endosulfan at Rotterdam Convention

As India attends the COP5, it is worth looking at how it has fared in the past. In COP 4, held in 2008, India had played spoilsport by preventing chrysotile asbestos and endosulfan from being included in Annex III of UN's Rotterdam Convention that brands them hazardous. Including the two in the Annex III would have made mandatory for countries to take a Prior Informed Consent, or PIC, before exporting them to other countries.
The UN's Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade is an important tool to protect human health and the environment by controlling trade in hazardous chemicals and pesticides that meet the requirements of the Convention.

The Chemical Review Committee, that recommends the listing of substances in the PIC list, plays a critical role by ensuring that the review mechanism of the Convention is used objectively and that science is the cornerstone of the review process.

While seven countries opposed asbestos from being blacklisted, in case of endosulfan only India opposed its inclusion. There is a sliver of hope for endosulfan though. India has given its consent to the global ban of the organochlorine pesticide at the recently concluded Stockholm Convention, albeit with exemptions. India will also be forced to take a stand now as the Supreme Court has imposed an interim ban on the pesticide, until a study on the health impacts of endosulfan is presented to the court. The apex court after it receives the study will take a decision to ban it completely or lift the ban. 

India has been opposing the listing of chrysotile asbestos (white asbestos) as a hazardous substance since 2004 when the first COP was held. The role of the powerful asbestos industry in influencing the decision of the Indian delegation is highly suspect. Political influence is also writ large. It is known that chrysotile asbestos plant that is operating in Rae Bareilly, Utter Pradesh is owned by a Member of Parliament of Indian National Congress who runs a chrysotile asbestos company. This despite countries banning white asbestos as it is extremely hazardous to health.

India has technically banned mining of asbestos including chrysotile asbestos on the grounds of it being hazardous so where is the rationale behind allowing its use? There is a growing demand to prohibit the import, manufacture, and use of asbestos-based products in India. There is also a demand for India to join the United Nations in banning the production and export of chrysotile asbestos worldwide and make asbestos companies criminally liable for knowingly exposing citizens and consumers of asbestos products.

Industry backing of the MoEF delegation to the earlier COPs of the convention is clear, as asbestos has been indicted by other departments. The Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare Ministry's statement in Rajya Sabha stated on August 18, 2003 that "Studies by the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, have shown that long-term exposure to any type of asbestos can lead to the development of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma''.

The Supreme Court, in a January 21, 2011 order took cognizance of the cancerous effect of asbestos and directed the centre to set up a body to regulate its manufacture and use. The fact that it is being considered hazardous is evident from the fact that there is The White Asbestos (Ban on Use and Import) Bill, 2009 in the Rajya Sabha (pending) and the order of the Kerala State Human Rights Commission of January 2009 banning the use of asbestos in schools and hospitals.

Every international health agency of repute including the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the American Cancer Society agree there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

Most recently, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reconfirmed that all commercial asbestos fibers - including chrysotile, the most commercially used form of asbestos - cause lung cancer and mesothelioma. In addition, IARC newly confirmed that there is sufficient evidence that asbestos causes ovarian cancer and reconfirmed asbestos causes laryngeal cancer.

World Health Organization estimates that asbestos claims 107,000 lives a year. Even this conservative estimate means that every five minutes a person dies of asbestos related disease.

Asbestos is banned in 55 countries, including the European Union and Japan. India is the largest importer of asbestos, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database. Canada and Russia are the biggest exporters of white asbestos. In 2007, Canada exported 95% of white asbestos it mined out of which 43 per cent was shipped to India. Most of it goes into making corrugated roofing sheets as building material. It is worth noting however that the Canadian parliament and the Prime Minister’s home have been made asbestos free.