Asbestos at the United Nations
The 18th session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-18) was held in New York in early May 2010.1 As a program of modernization and decontamination is currently underway at the UN's headquarters, CSD-18 delegates attended sessions in temporary structures on the north lawn of the UN complex. Constructed in the 1950s, the iconic building on the East River is leaking, dilapidated and ill-prepared for 21st century challenges such as the threat of terrorist attack. The presence of asbestos-containing vinyl floor tiles, acoustic wall tiles, ceiling plaster, heating and pipe insulation material throughout the building makes it a hazardous place to work, use and visit.2 The ongoing $2 billion makeover aims to reinstate the look of the UN office block to exactly the same as when the ribbon was cut (in 1952); work conducted under the Capital Master Plan will also remove asbestos-containing material.3
This is not the first time that asbestos contamination has directly impacted on the working conditions of UN officials and diplomats. The decontamination of buildings occupied by UN agencies at the Vienna International Center (VIC) is Austria's largest asbestos removal program.4 Asbestos management and removal issues have also caused concern at UN premises in Bangkok, Geneva, Nairobi and Santiago.5 Having engaged with the challenges posed by the UN's asbestos legacy, it is fitting that the impact asbestos is having elsewhere was the focus of a May 6th side event at the CSD-18; the consideration of the asbestos hazard by delegates underscored the incompatibility of asbestos with sustainable development.
The session on asbestos, organized by Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF), was attended by 60 delegates representing countries and non-government organizations. Following an introduction by Alexandra Catebow from the WECF detailing the fatal repercussions of asbestos consumption worldwide, other presentations examined the asbestos hazard in the context of asbestos producing and consuming countries. Olga Speranskaya, from the Eco-Accord Program on Chemical Safety, spoke about Asbestos in the EECCA Key Problems, focusing on the situation in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.6 Key facts she presented included:
Substantial amounts of Russia's annual production of 400,000 tonnes of asbestos are exported to 35 countries said Ms. Speranskaya. Between 2001 and 2005, Indonesia's imports of Russian asbestos more than doubled.7 In her presentation Asbestos in Indonesia, speaker Yuyun Ismawati, from Indonesia Toxic-Free Network, explained that the confusion which persists over asbestos in Indonesia has created a climate in which the use of asbestos is flourishing. According to Indonesian sources, in the decade from 1999 to 2008, asbestos imports rose from 30,000 to 103,000 tonnes. In view of the lack of clarity regarding the government's asbestos policy, industry stakeholders have a free rein in promoting sales of asbestos-containing products, even though safer asbestos-free alternatives exist.8 The vast majority of asbestos imported to Indonesia is used in the production of asbestos-cement roofing materials destined for lower income housing. One hundred and ten thousand Indonesians are employed at 26 facilities processing chrysotile asbestos. Under Ministry of Health regulations, the industrial threshold limit value (TLV) of asbestos is 5 fibers/cc; under Ministry of Manpower guidelines the TLV is 2 fibers/cc. Such discrepancies are typical of the lack of cohesiveness amongst the various regulatory agencies including the Ministries of: Trade, Environment, Health and Manpower. Concluding her presentation, Ms. Ismawati called on the government to prioritize occupational and public health rather than short-term economic gains.
From the presentations concerning the EECCA and Indonesia, there can be little doubt about the huge social costs which will be paid by populations for the widespread and uncontrolled use of asbestos. The socio-economic costs of asbestos in Germany, which was discussed by Dr. Markus Mattenklott of the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the German Social Accident Insurance, have been huge. Official estimates of the impact asbestos has had include the following:
In addition to the 1,500 workers in Germany who are dying every year, there are more than 300,000 at risk of contracting disease from occupational exposures to asbestos, not to mention the members of the public who were exposed to asbestos environmentally or domestically. The speaker highlighted the health risks as a result of inappropriate handling of still used asbestos products in residential homes and industrial applications. Clearly, even in a post-ban country like Germany, where strict government regulations are enforced to protect occupational and public health, a huge price is being paid for the historic use of asbestos.
During the discussion, many of the representatives described the lack of available information on asbestos in their countries and the corresponding low level of awareness of the health hazards posed by occupational, environmental and domestic exposures to asbestos. According to an observer, the delegate from Sudan made a particularly enlightening intervention when she described the national increase in cancer which the authorities had failed to correlate with the increase in asbestos used for roofing, water pipes and other purposes. The Sudanese delegate called for a ban on asbestos throughout Africa. As a result of the discussions during this session it was decided to suggest the inclusion of a statement on the need to ban asbestos in the report of the CSD-18 chair. At the suggestion of the Women Major Group and NGO Major Group the following paragraph on asbestos was recommended:
Asbestos continues to harm millions of people around the world. All types of asbestos cause cancer and there is no safe use of the material. Developing countries and countries with economies in transition are most vulnerable as many do not have liability and compensation systems or the proper environmental and health legislation that can protect workers and communities from the harms of asbestos.
Unfortunately, this text was omitted from the Chair's Summary of the meeting.9
June 1, 2010
2 The asbestos removal program at the VIC due to be finished in 2010 has been delayed; completion of the work is now anticipated in 2013.
Kazan-Allen L. Next Wave of Asbestos Victims? November 2007.
3 Lane T. Much-needed makeover for UN icon. October 28, 2007.
4 Kazan-Allen L. Westminster Asbestos Seminar. May 2006.
6 EECCA: Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia
7 According to the United States Geological Survey, in 2008, total asbestos imports by Indonesia were 78,037 tonnes.
8 The speaker noted that asbestos-free products are between 12-30% more expensive than asbestos-cement products.