EFFORTS spearheaded by the European Union to establish strict rules limiting the international trade in asbestos failed on Tuesday amid resistance from key producers Canada and Russia.
The move was hailed by Zimbabwe, which is battling to try and save its asbestos industry.
The country has pledged to work with other world producers of chrysotile (white) asbestos to fend off the Western-backed campaign to ban white asbestos.
Chrysotile, used in housing projects in Zimbabwe, plays a major role in terms of foreign currency earnings and employment creation.
The local asbestos industry this year expects to generate more than US$40 million in foreign currency earnings.
Officials at a United Nations meeting, called to extend a list of toxic substances, which can only be exported with advance government clearance from an importing country, said there was no agreement on including chrysotile, the main form of asbestos.
The officials declined to give details of the closed-door discussions, but the global environmental protection body WWF International accused the Canadian and Russian delegations of “leading a revolt” to block the action.
Health experts and many scientists say chrysotile, which represents 94% of world asbestos consumption, is a major agent of cancer and other fatal diseases because of its fibres which can be inhaled and stick to lung linings.
It has been banned in the 15-nation EU, Australia and Chile. Many other countries including the United States, Brazil, Argentina and Egypt, which restrict its use, are considering similar moves.
“Canada’s objection to listing chrysotile is embarrassingly self-interested,” said a statement from WWF, in a clear reference to the Canadian role as the world’s third largest producer of asbestos and the top exporter.
There was no immediate comment from negotiators on either side of the argument, but in the past Canadian officials have argued that chrysotile – used in automobile brakes, gaskets, and some armaments – is less dangerous than substitutes.
Canada and Russia – with backing from smaller producers like Ukraine, China, Zimbabwe, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Colombia – were able to block action because decisions under the UN’s 1998 Rotterdam
Convention require consensus.
A statement from Canadian WWF official Julia Langer said her country’s stance in the latest row “makes a mockery of the (Rotterdam) Convention’s intent which is shared responsibility for health and environmental protection between exporters and importers of harmful substances.
The pact – officially the Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure on trade in hazardous chemicals and pesticides – is based on the list, and in 2001 its own chemical review committee said all forms of asbestos should be included.
On Tuesday, negotiators agreed to include on the list four of the five asbestos types remaining outside Convention coverage but left out chrysotile – which in Canada is mined in Quebec province in an industry providing hundreds of jobs.
Zimbabwe exports asbestos fibre to more than 50 countries in the world.
The major export destination of Zimbabwe’s chrysotile asbestos fibre is South East Asia, the Far East, Middle East and Africa.
Zimbabwe is the fifth largest producer of white asbestos fibre after Russia, Canada, China and Brazil.