Status of Asian Ban Asbestos Agendas
In recent years, the issue of banning asbestos has been a priority topic in discussions at the highest levels in Taiwan and Thailand. At recent meetings attended by government, business and civil society stakeholders, standard asbestos industry rhetoric was deployed to undermine official resolve to take effective action to protect citizens from the asbestos hazard. With 55 national bans now in place around the world and a 41% decrease in the number of asbestos-consuming countries in the last decade,1 the asbestos lobby is fighting tooth and nail to forestall the introduction of regulations, whether national or supranational, that could impact on demand for chrysotile (white asbestos), the only type of asbestos being traded.
Last year (2010) the Taiwan Environment Protection Administration (EPA) prohibited many remaining uses of asbestos, having previously banned its use in construction materials. It was announced that a comprehensive ban would be implemented by 2020. Although little asbestos is currently being used reports from Taiwan suggest that current annual consumption is around 1,000 tonnes vested commercial Taiwanese interests are strenuously resisting further incursions on potential markets.2 In Taiwan, public health scholars have called for a change in the government's asbestos policy; the academics, frustrated by the decade-long wait for the total ban, report increasing industry pressure on government officials and civil servants. As has been seen in Brazil3 and elsewhere, asbestos defenders come to the discussion table armed with outdated data, spurious research and fallacious financial arguments which support their arguments and neglect to mention developments such as ban asbestos policies adopted by all major international agencies which do not. Unlike the bad old days when asbestos propaganda was swallowed lock, stock and barrel, nowadays industry's outworn rhetoric is increasingly being challenged.4
What the Taiwan eventually decides regarding asbestos has implications which transcend its own borders as it could impact on commercial relations between Taiwan and China. In June last year (2010), these governments signed a bilateral trade agreement, The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, to reduce commercial barriers and tariffs and encourage trade. The effectiveness of this pact, regarded as the most significant rapprochement in more than fifty years, could be affected by the existence of different standards regarding asbestos in the two countries.
In Thailand there is a diversity of opinion on asbestos amongst government ministries. In 2006, the Department of Disease Control of the Thai Ministry of Public Health, the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare and the Social Security Office of the Ministry of Labor were the main organizers of The Asian Asbestos Conference 2006, the country's first independent conference on asbestos.5 Speakers from these organizations expressed concern over Thailand's increasing use of asbestos, failure to implement occupational or environmental safeguards and lack of medical expertise in occupational health. While progress has been made during the intervening years to address some of these issues, each improvement has been accomplished in the face of fierce resistance from vested interests such as the manufacturers of asbestos-cement roofing and pipe products.6
The determination of domestic asbestos companies to maintain the status quo can be seen by the establishment in 2009 of the Chrysotile Information Center of Thailand.7 According to its website, the Center is dedicated to exploiting impartially scientific information on Chrysotile mineral by web site, seminar, brochure, and cooperation with local manufacturers and government officers for the Safe Use Program. A cursory look at the information available online in English confirms that it is the usual industry propaganda generated by the Chrysotile Institute (Canada) and regurgitated by the Brazilian Chrysotile Institute and Russian asbestos lobby.
The growth of support for an asbestos ban in Thailand has been stimulated by the work of civil society groups such as the Noasbestos Organization, which has provided a much needed counterpoint to the industry's disinformation campaign. A public opinion poll conducted by the Bangkok Post last month (January 2011) reported overwhelming support for an asbestos ban with more than 85% of respondents agreeing that the import and sale of asbestos and asbestos products should cease.8 Responding to the fall in consumer confidence, asbestos producers are warning that a ban on asbestos could increase prices for building materials. Marketing Director Uran Kleosakul of Oran Vanich, one of three companies producing asbestos-cement roofing tiles in Thailand, said:
If [asbestos] is banned, we will stop production since it will be cheaper than having to pay for damage [caused by low quality non-asbestos tiles], which are two times weaker than asbestos tiles.9
Similar predictions made in Brazil have been disproved by research conducted last year by Professors Ana Lucia Gonçalves da Silva and Carlos Raul Etulain.10 It is significant to note that a news conference held by Oran Vanich on January 20, 2011 to defend the status quo was not supported by the country's other asbestos-cement roofing tile producers: Diamond Roofing Tile and Mahaphant.
Dr. Vithaya Kulsomboon, the Director of the Health Consumer Protection Program, Chulalongkorn University and a founding member of the Noasbestos Network, is also a member of the National Economic and Social Advisory Council, a body which recently submitted a proposal to end the use of chrysotile asbestos, other forms of asbestos having been banned previously, to the Government; this proposal has now been passed to the Industry Ministry. Commenting on the current situation, Dr. Vithaya Kulsomboon noted:
The meeting held by the Industry Ministry on January 24, 2011 considered the proposal to ban the use of asbestos which was submitted to the Prime Minister in November 2010 by the National Economic and Social Advisory Council. The fact that this proposal is similar to the ban asbestos proposal adopted by the National Health Assembly reinforces the need for Thailand to prohibit the future use of asbestos to protect workers and members of the public from hazardous exposures. I hope that an announcement will be made at next week's meeting of the Industry Ministry that a decision has been be taken to submit the ban asbestos proposal to the Government for immediate implementation.
February 3, 2011
1 Kazan-Allen L. Global Asbestos Panorama 2010 The Winds of Change. A paper presented in Bandung, Indonesia in October 2010. In research done for this paper, only countries using more than 500 tonnes of asbestos/ year were counted.
2 There is a discrepancy between asbestos consumption levels reported by sources in Taiwan and data supplied by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) which has not reported any consumption in Taiwan since 1997.
USGS data shows that asbestos use in Taiwan peaked in the 1980s. In 1990, according to the USGS, annual use was 15,165 tonnes. The latest year for which USGS data could be found for Taiwan was 1997 when it consumed 5,773 tonnes.
3 A paper: The Economic Impact of The Banning of the Use of Asbestos in Brazil, which explodes the financial arguments for retaining the use of asbestos in Brazil is available on this website.
9 Asbestos ban could affect prices. January 21, 2011.
Viboonchart N. Planned asbestos ban a boon to SCG, tile maker claims. January 21, 2011.