World

Chrysotile asbestos stays off global dangerous-substance list

Chyrostile asbestos will remain off a list of the world's most dangerous substances, delegates to an international meeting in Rome decided Tuesday.

Chrysotile asbestos will remain off a list of the world's most dangerous substances, delegates to an international meeting in Rome decided Tuesday.

The week-long Rotterdam Convention is looking at whether three substances, including the chrysotile form of asbestos, should be added to a United Nations-backed treaty listing the world's most dangerous substances.

The world's second-largest chrysotile producer, Canada, was the only Western democracy that opposed adding it to the list during the last round of talks in 2006.

NDP MP Pat Martin said Tuesday the Canadian delegation did not even participate in the discussions this year but got others to work on their behalf instead.

He accused the Canadians of browbeating developing nations such as India, Pakistan and Vietnam — some of Canada's largest chrysotile customers — into opposing its inclusion on the list.

"It's not a proud day for our country," said Martin, who attended the convention and spoke by telephone from Rome.

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Representatives from about 120 countries were to attend the convention. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization had said it expected many would oppose the inclusion of chrysotile on the list, which includes toxins and carcinogens such as DDT and PCBs.

Leading up to the convention, officials with Canada's foreign affairs department would not say what position the federal government planned to take on the issue.

The two chrysotile mines operating in Canada are located in Quebec and employ about 700 people.

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the federal natural resources minister, Jasmine MacDonnell, told the Canadian Press the government has consistently promoted the responsible use of chrysotile asbestos through a number of rules, programs and best practices.

Chrysotile less potent but not used safely in developing countries

The UN says chrysotile asbestos, widely used in building materials, accounts for about 94 per cent of global asbestos production and is considered a carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

Government-sponsored lobby group the Chrysotile Institute, however, argues the substance is less dangerous than other forms of asbestos if used safely because it doesn't crumble and its fibres are embedded in cement or resin to prevent their release into the atmosphere.

Health Canada also says chrysotile is generally accepted as less potent and less damaging to the lungs than other types of asbestos.

Martin and other opponents, however, argue there is ample evidence that workers in developing nations aren't using chrysotile safely because of lax safety standards.

Photographs published earlier this week in Montreal's La Presse newspaper showed a worker in India handling raw asbestos with only a cloth covering his mouth.

Last week, an editorial published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal likened the federal government's support for exporting asbestos to developing countries to the deadly arms trade.

One of its authors, Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, said Tuesday he was "deeply disappointed" by the convention's decision.

"This is something we hoped would be an opportunity for Canada to take a stand and make a decision that would benefit the health and welfare of people in the world, especially people who are in the developing world in countries least prepared to cope with the health burden that asbestos imposes everywhere that it's used."

Stanbrook said that having chrysotile listed as dangerous wouldn't mean it was banned for use but just that countries seeking to import it would have to acknowledge they were bringing in a dangerous substance.

The Rotterdam Convention doesn't ban trade in hazardous substances but requires exporting countries to notify importing governments of the presence of such substances in products so they can give informed consent on accepting the dangers.

Asbestos has been banned by nearly every developed country, as well as a growing number of developing nations.

At least 90,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, the UN said.

With files from the Canadian Press