EARTH Thailand

How the asbestos industry targeted developing countries – and what might be done about it

Inside Story 13 April 2017 | Tom Greenwell

More than 100,000 people die from asbestos-related disease each year, but the global asbestos industry continues to thrive. An African diplomatic initiative could be the first step in stopping it

Its dangers are beyond dispute, and it has been banned in Australia and around fifty other countries, yet asbestos use still exceeds an estimated 1.8 million tonnes every year worldwide. The deadly mineral is dug up in Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Brazil to be used in building products, automotive parts and insulation throughout the Global South. Now, a group of African nations, encouraged by Australia, has proposed that asbestos be brought under the control of the Rotterdam Convention on hazardous chemicals in international trade, whose signatories meet in Geneva on 24 April.

Like their counterparts in the tobacco industry, asbestos companies have a long history of ruthlessly protecting their profits by covering up the effects of their product. Asbestosis, the inflammation and scarring of lung tissue that leads to severe shortness of breath, was first described in medical literature in the 1920s. By the 1950s, epidemiological research had firmly established the link between asbestos and lung cancer. Even though the industry was well aware of these effects, global consumption continued to grow during the 1960s and 1970s. When companies commissioned research that revealed the lethal nature of their product, they didn’t reveal the results to their own workers – let alone their customers or the broader public.

Also like their tobacco counterparts, asbestos companies have responded to the crackdown in rich countries by focusing on the developing world, seeking to capitalise on weaker governance and lower awareness of the health hazards. There, a key part of the industry’s strategy has been to seek to maximise confusion about the relative dangers of different types of asbestos. According to the industry, one of the six varieties of asbestos – chrysotile, or white asbestos – can be used safely, and so companies have rebranded themselves as being in the chrysotile business. The peak global lobby group for asbestos now calls itself the International Chrysotile Association.

The problem with the distinction between safe chrysotile and unsafe asbestos is that it’s a creation of public relations, not science. It’s true that some kinds of asbestos are more harmful than others, but there is no question that they are all harmful, as the World Health Organization is at pains to make clear:

The firm view of WHO and IARC [the International Agency for Research on Cancer], based on repeated assessments of the scientific evidence, is that chrysotile causes cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary, mesothelioma and asbestosis, and that stopping the use of all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, to prevent exposure should be recognised as the most effective way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases.

Kate Lee, the executive director of Union Aid Abroad–APHEDA, the union movement’s global justice agency, is familiar with the asbestos industry’s efforts to promote chrysotile asbestos. “The typical strategy is to fly a delegation of government officials from a poor country to Thailand, for example, put them up in a five-star hotel, give them expensive per diems, and then expose them to a whole range of basic misinformation about how asbestos can be used safely.” New Matilda’s recent exposé of the espionage campaign waged on behalf of the Kazakhstani asbestos conglomerate, Kusto Group, against international anti-asbestos activists revealed just how far elements of the industry are willing to go.

All of which makes this month’s meeting of parties to the Rotterdam Convention a potentially decisive moment in the effort to minimise the harm asbestos causes globally. The aim is to have chrysotile asbestos included in the list of hazardous materials covered by the Convention. While this wouldn’t prohibit use of asbestos, it would mean that it could only be traded with the prior informed consent of importing countries. The real significance of the deliberations in Geneva is that identifying chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous material has the potential to severely damage the global chrysotile brand, and definitively discredit the industry’s argument that it can be used safely. 

“The problem we face in many countries in our region is that there is very low awareness,” says Lee. “That lack of awareness extends to agencies that have responsibility for tracking and management of disease. We had the experience in Indonesia recently where, in discussion with customs officials, people didn’t even know the word ‘asbestos.’ They had to Google it to find out what it meant.” A successful outcome in Geneva has the potential to bring a fundamental shift in global awareness. 

The Rotterdam Convention also matters because, in practice, it would be a step towards a global ban. Countries like Vietnam and Cambodia have already been moving towards a stronger stance. Once a hazardous material is included in the Convention, nations must decide whether to consent to its importation, or to do so only subject to conditions. They must then notify the other parties. Identifying chrysotile as a hazardous material covered by the Convention will thus put debate of its merits firmly on national agendas. “We believe that that may lead to a number of these countries, especially within our region, implementing a ban,” says Brad Parker, CFMEU assistant national secretary and leading anti-asbestos campaigner.

Asbestos-exporting nations have been able to block repeated attempts to include chrysotile in the Rotterdam Convention because listing a new hazardous material in Annex III requires unanimous agreement among the 157 parties. Even though the Convention’s own expert advisory panel, the Chemical Review Committee, has repeatedly recommended the addition of chrysotile, the exporters have refused to budge. At the 2015 conference of the parties, the opposition of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Zimbabwe succeeded in stymieing the will of more than 150 other countries.

This year offers hope of a breakthrough. Last September, a meeting of African nations proposed that the threshold for adding a hazardous material be reduced to a three-quarters majority, bringing it in line with the threshold required for all other changes to the Convention. To succeed, the African amendment will thus need the support of 75 per cent of signatories. Success isn’t guaranteed, but it does mean that asbestos-exporting countries, like Russia and Kazakhstan, can’t simply block the initiative with their own votes. The African proposal will be the subject of intense lobbying and debate in coming days, leading up to the vote in the first week of May. 

Ultimately, the question the delegates in Geneva will face is whether workers and communities in poor countries are entitled to the same protection from asbestos as those in rich countries. Low- and middle-income countries stand to benefit most from the increased flow of information and regulation from the Convention’s prior informed consent procedure.

Australia has long been a leader in the global campaign against asbestos, and we were one of the countries that first proposed that chrysotile asbestos be included in the Convention. After the proposal was once again blocked in 2015, Australia led the intersessional work that has resulted in the African proposal. Kate Lee believes that our voice, as an international leader in asbestos eradication, will be critical at the meeting in Geneva and in the days leading up to it. “We’ve got the history, the bipartisan position, and we’ve got the expertise to say of the legacy of asbestos – you will be dealing this with for decades unless you do something about it now. It will cost you economically for decades unless you do this now. It will cost your companies – look how much it cost James Hardie. You will be litigated – get out now.”

If being a good global citizen is reason enough to participate in the push in Geneva, the outcome will also have implications at home. Despite Australia’s ban on asbestos, regular infractions continue to be reported. Last July, imported asbestos was found at the Queensland government’s Executive Building in Brisbane and in roof panels at the new Perth Children’s Hospital. In 2015, asbestos was discovered in Peppa Pig and Mickey Mouse children’s crayons. The head of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, Peter Tighe, has said that concrete sheeting containing asbestos has been used in dozens of construction projects in recent years. While this suggests the need for more resourcing for inspection and testing of imported products at the border, the safest guarantee would be for our trading partners to join us in a total ban. 

While many Australians live with the horrifying legacy of asbestos, exposure to its perils internationally continues largely uncurtailed. The outcome of the African amendment in Geneva will signal whether the days of this lethal trade are numbered.