International Toxics Convention Wrecked 

by Barry Castleman



Last week, the 126 nations that have ratified the Rotterdam Convention as well as some observers (e.g., US, Russia) met in Rome. These meetings take place every 2 years or so, for the purpose of adding substances to Annex III of the Convention. Annex III toxic substances are banned in at least two parts of the world, and are mostly pesticides that are little used anymore.For these substances, an exporter must first notify an intended recipient country of the notorious regulatory status of the substance; and then, if the recipient country still wants it, it can be shipped.

This is called Prior Informed Consent (PIC) and was contrived to give poor countries a chance to better protect their citizens and control their borders. The convention does not ban anything, nor does it prevent international trade in the listed substances. And one more thing -- it only takes one country to prevent a substance from being added to Annex III.

Canada has repeatedly blocked the addition of chrysotile asbestos to the PIC list, the variety of asbestos that accounts for 95% of historic global asbestos use and the only type in international trade since the Convention was introduced in 1998.This year, the chemical review committee fully examined the science and again recommended adding chrysotile to the PIC list, along with the widely banned pesticide endosulfan and the tributyltin compounds used as anti-fouling agents in paints on ship hulls.

Activists from countries including Canada, India, the US, Australia, Germany, Russia, and the Ukraine came to Rome to work with the vast majority of countries to save the Rotterdam Convention.The Collegium Ramazzini sent an urgent plea for the countries to honor their commitment in ratifying the Convention and allow the three new substances to be added to the PIC list.1

In the end, no full vote was taken, but 8 countries signified that they were opposed to adding chrysotile asbestos to Annex III: India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Ukraine, Philippines, Mexico, and Vietnam. Canada was actively involved but declined to answer repeated inquiries on what its position was.Canada was reeling under a wave of critical press reports based in part on a devastating editorial in the Canadian Medical Association journal.2

In the end, one could only wonder why the 7 asbestos-importing countries were induced to join (asbestos exporter) Kazakhstan in opposing the PIC-listing of asbestos, which would have changed nothing for them. They would be free to go on importing it. But the asbestos exporters (which also include Russia, Zimbabwe, Canada, and Brazil) have shown great sensitivity about this.Brazil's representative told me they were in favor of PIC-listing for endosulfan but would abstain on chrysotile.Russia's representative was doing all he could to get others to block PIC-listing of his country's asbestos.

One can't help but wonder if at least some of the countries that blocked addition of chrysotile asbestos to Annex III were paid off in free asbestos.Most of them did not explain why they were opposed to adding asbestos the PIC-list.

India, a major exporter of endosulfan, was joined by Pakistan in stating opposing endosulfan's addition to the PIC list. So now these countries, who seem unable to agree on much else, have gone far to remove any doubt that the Rotterdam Convention was fragmenting in a disgraceful display of anarchy.All it takes is an industry that has close ties to a government, a government willing to sacrifice principle, and that industry can keep its product off the PIC list. Tributyl tin compounds were added to the PIC list without objection.

It remains to be seen if the community of nations envisioned by the majority of countries involved can somehow move to the stage where a 75% majority is enough to put a new chemical on the PIC list. This is also in the text, but inactively in brackets that can only be removed by unanimous consent.

For now, toxic corporate crime has prevailed over international public heath. Events of the Rome meeting were recorded by Kathleen Ruff and Madhumita Dutta of the Rotterdam Convention Alliance, activists at the conference.3

November 4, 2008







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