Russian Asbestos U-Turn?
On September 7, 2011, the Russian Justice Ministry promulgated a revolutionary law (standard SanPiN1 126.96.36.19987-11), proposed by the Chief Sanitary Inspector, which recognized the occupational hazard posed by chrysotile asbestos and chrysotile-containing materials.2 With asbestos production at around 1 million tonnes a year, Russia, the world's biggest asbestos producer, has long denied that asbestos poses any risks to miners, workers or members of the public. The well-entrenched denial strategy has been wielded by powerful vested interests who have repeatedly stonewalled attempts by international agencies and health and safety campaigners to progress a phase-out of asbestos use. At a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting in June 2011, Russian asbestos stakeholders were pivotal in frustrating efforts by the WHO to adopt measures to prevent future asbestos-related diseases. Two weeks later, Russian asbestos lobbyists from the International Chrysotile Alliance of Trade Union Organizations were part of an industry assault on UN proposals to impose a modicum of international regulation on the trade in chrysotile asbestos. The fact that these vested interests succeeded in vetoing UN action was widely condemned by delegates at the Geneva meeting of the Rotterdam Convention and civil society groups around the world.
Even as the Russian asbestos industry was succeeding abroad, at home threats to its control of the national asbestos agenda were emerging. In mid-June, a technical regulation was drafted by the Russian Federal State Unitary Enterprise which proposed a ban on asbestos in friction materials, enforceable throughout the Eurasian Economic Community, members of which include Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Belarus.3 It goes without saying that this was totally unacceptable to the asbestos industry and an aggressive fightback was mounted as a result of which it seems this regulation has been put on hold. In August, a pioneering project spearheaded by personnel from Russian civil society groups exposed scandalous situations in key asbestos hotspots where virtually no information was available on the asbestos hazard and asbestos usage remained a normal part of everyday life. 4
The timing of the new law is not coincidental. The adoption of standard SanPiN 188.8.131.5287-11 marks a huge change in official policy. Commenting on this development, a Russian expert said:
It looks like a very progressive document in comparison with all documents previously developed in the country. It stresses asbestos danger and the need for protective measures. It is very much focused on asbestos containing waste, the health and safety of workers, occupational safety measures including those needed during the refurbishment and demolition of asbestos containing buildings. It even said that the health of workers in the asbestos industry has to be monitored for life; this, of course, includes during retirement.
If there is the political will and resources to ensure compliance with the new regulation, it might be that some progress has been made. If, as is widely suspected, this regulation is window-dressing designed to assuage the serious concern of international agencies about Russia's asbestos industry, then the risks posed by Russia's mining, processing and use of asbestos will remain as great as ever.
September 15, 2011
1 The acronym SanPiN stands for sanitary/epidemiological rule and standard. SanPiN is a standard issued by the Russian authorities responsible for the regulation of the manufacture and use of, and exposure to, chemicals.
2 Russia issues asbestos standard. September 14, 2011.
3 Kazan-Allen L. Russian Asbestos Ban? July 6, 2011.
4 Kazan-Allen L. Russia's Asbestos Challenge. August 15, 2011.