Bad chemistry

Asbestos, agribusiness get a leg up

Published: Wednesday 15 November 2006

-- the past month has been bad for activists and groups fighting big industry and trying to jam the levers they control. In Geneva, the Canadian government put its weight behind the chrysotile (white) asbestos lobby to derail a multilateral process. They successfully managed to keep white asbestos out of the Annex iii of Rotterdam Convention, an international treaty regulating trade in toxic substances.

Canada took an aggressive pro-chrysotile stance, despite the fact that just two months back the International Labour Organization (ilo) had, in its general conference, adopted a resolution to completely ban all kinds of asbestos. The European Union, the International Commission on Occupational Health, the un, the Collegium Ramazzini, and many other international agencies and national governments agree that exposure to all kinds of asbestos is hazardous and should be prevented, ideally by banning them. But while the West is cleaning up and nations are banning asbestos, consumption has now shifted to the developing world. Asian countries led by China (491,954 tonnes) and India (192,033 tonnes) consume over 50 per cent of global asbestos production.

The Canadian stance is understandable as it seeks to protect its own trade. But the Indian government's support for white asbestos is inexplicable keeping in mind the poor conditions of occupational health regimes and infrastructure in the country. Taking diametrically opposite stances is indefensible on the part of the Union ministry of environment and forests. While a representative of the ministry supported white asbestos at Geneva, his boss, the head of a Supreme Court-appointed committee, submitted to the court that there is indeed a white asbestos-induced occupational health crisis in the country. Regulators hide behind the argument that white asbestos is needed to provide cheap housing material, but fail to acknowledge that they are allowing a whole lot of workers to be exposed to the deadly fibre.

The pesticide industry also had a reason to smile. One of its former employees was chosen to head Region 10 of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. ngos have questioned the appointment of a representative of the pesticide industry to such a key post. The Malaysian government, meanwhile, has lifted its ban on paraquat, a highly toxic herbicide. Activists allege the ban was lifted under industry pressure.

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