White ruling

France wins a landmark ruling on asbestos against Canada

Published: Sunday 15 April 2001

the appellate body of World Trade Organisation (wto) has upheld the French ban on asbestos. Canada, a leading exporter of asbestos, used to export nearly 30,000 metric tonnes of Chrysotile, or "white" asbestos each year to France till 1996, when France imposed a ban on its asbestos. Canada, alleging that the French ban violated wto's non-discrimination rules, claimed that its asbestos was safe and did not pose a health hazard. However, the judgement reasoned that France was justified in imposing trade restrictions to protect public health.

The ruling comes as a blow to the global asbestos industry. Experts feel that wto members might now use the ruling as a precedent to justify similar bans. "By permitting France to ban imports of all asbestos -- with or without scientific evidence -- wto has essentially endorsed the "precautionary principle", which would provide additional ability for countries to restrict imports," says Keith E Maskus of the University of Colorado, usa .

The case, which is one of the high-profile ones that the wto has ever settled, is significant in many ways. This is for the first time that a panel, in a dispute case, has approved trade-restrictive measures. In the past, environmental bodies had accused that the panel rulings had privileged free trade over ecological considerations. In the cases involving sea turtles, dolphins and reformulated gasoline, the body had displayed a "pro-business bias." Many analysts say that the ruling was not tilted in favour of business. "It's about time that they supported common sense, not narrow-minded, short-term corporate interests," said Remi Parmentier, a spokesperson for environment pressure group Greenpeace.

The French measures were taken under a 1996 decree, aimed at banning all types of asbestos and related products. The decision was taken after scientific studies suggested that asbestos could cause many diseases, including cancer. The United States National Programme says, "There is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of asbestos".

The uk-based International Ban Asbestos Secretariat estimates that asbestos has claimed over 200,000 deaths in the us . It predicts that deaths from mesothelioma, a rare cancer associated with exposure to asbestos, will increase from 5,000 in 1998 to about 9,000 by 2018 in western Europe. The patients suffering from this disease survive for more than two years and there is no cure for this disease. The other diseases linked with asbestos include asbestosis and lung cancer.

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