In a retrograde move, India opposed the listing of chrysotile asbestos under Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention at the sixth meeting of Conference of Parties (COP6) on May 8 in Geneva. Substances listed under Annex III of the Convention—a global treaty to promote shared responsibilities in relation to import of hazardous chemicals—require exporting countries to advise importing countries about the toxicity of the substances so that importers can give their prior informed consent (PIC) for trade. The Convention does not ban or limit trade in such hazardous substances.
Civil society members campaigning for a global ban on asbestos expressed shock at India retracting from its earlier decision, and allege that the Indian delegation was influenced by the industry lobby to take such a stand.
Chrysotile asbestos, the most common form of asbestos used in India, is a fibrous substance, often mixed with cement to create a fire-retardant mixture which is applied to corrugated steel sheets and pipes. Called “the poor man’s material”, it is often used in roofing structures by the poor in India because of its high insulation and low-cost.
The Chemical Review Committee, a subsidiary body of the Convention, had recommended listing of white asbestos under Annex III as the World Health Organisation (WHO) had found that asbestos was harmful to human health and environment. It is a carcinogen.
The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade is aimed at helping developing countries in managing potentially hazardous chemicals imported by them.
Going back on its word
During the fifth Conference of Parties (COP5) in June 2011, the Indian delegation had agreed to the listing of chrysotile asbestos in the PIC list, and received a standing ovation at the plenary. Despite India’s support, COP5 had not been able to reach a consensus on the listing of chrysotile asbestos in the PIC list. The reason given was confusion over the meaning of 'listing' as opposed to 'banning'. With no consensus, the PIC listing was postponed to COP6.
At the ongoing COP6 in Geneva, the Indian delegation did not support the listing, citing reasons such as the utility of the substance, the finding of “no hazard” in domestic studies and the increased trade costs of the PIC Procedure. The Russian federation suggested removing the issue from further consideration by the COP as there had been no consensus earlier. The COP forwarded the issue to the Contact Group on Listing of Chemicals. However, the agenda item was closed today, with chrysotile asbestos still not included in PIC.
M Subba Rao, director of MoEF, did not comment on the matter and said RN Jindal, assistant director, MoEF, who is also a part of the Indian delegation in Geneva, should be contacted.
Lobbies at work
It is believed that India had changed its stand based on a study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) and the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals (DCPC) on effects of use of chrysotile asbestos on health and the environment. The study was done twice, in 2008 and in 2011, for big and small industries separately. The report released in May 2012 says the fibre concentration in predominant samples was found to be within permissible exposure levels.
The asbestos-cement industry is the largest user of chrysotile fibres, accounting for about 85 per cent of all use. The entire requirement of chrysotile asbestos is met through imports. The domestic industry in India is worth over USD 1 billion, and provides employment to a few thousand people.
“It is shocking that the ministry is quoting a discredited study by NIOH for not listing Chrysotile in PIC. Through RTI queries it had been exposed that the NIOH study was funded by major asbestos industries. The industry lobby bought the Indian delegates during COP6. We are thinking of moving court,” said Gopal Krishna of non-profit ToxicsWatch Alliance.
C Jayakumar, director of Thanal Conservation Action and Information Network, who attended the COP6 meet and is back in India, said that Indian delegates seemed clueless about what was going on at the meet. “My colleagues are still there attending the meetings and they informed me that India quoted a discredited study to oppose the listing of chrysotile asbestos,” he said, adding that the industry seems to have strong influence on the delegation.
Global push for a ban
WHO cites 107,000 occupational deaths yearly from exposure to asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos, in particular, is a toxic carcinogen. WHO, the International Labour Organization and the World Bank have all called for an end to the use of this substance. Over the past century, chrysotile asbestos represented 95 per cent of all asbestos sold, with all other forms of asbestos representing five per cent of asbestos sold. Today, it is the only form of asbestos in use.
The Union for the International Control of Cancer (2012), comprising more than 700 member organisations in 155 countries, the World Federation of Public Health Associations (2005), the International Commission on Occupational Health (2000), the International Social Security Association (2004), the Collegium Ramazzini (1999, 20105) and the International Trade Union Confederation (2004) – representing 175 million workers in 151 countries – have all called for a global ban on the use of all forms of asbestos, particularly chrysotile asbestos.
India earlier had not supported the inclusion of paraquat dichloride, a highly toxic substance used as a herbicide in diluted form, under Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention, similarly stating there was no scientific basis for the stated threshold limit in the proposal.