First International Asbestos Conference in Kazakhstan
Asbestos is big business in Kazakhstan; in 2007, it was the world's 3rd largest producer and consumer of chrysotile asbestos.1 Despite a global consensus about the carcinogenic nature of chrysotile, in Kazakhstan there are no rules imposed on its production, use or disposal. Reporting her experience in a village in Kazakhstan, the Director of a European NGO, said: We saw people in the villages cutting-up slates of asbestos in their gardens, with children playing around them and we became very worried.2 Sascha Gabizon, of Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF),3 followed up these issues with WECF colleagues and Kazakh partners: GreenWomen, Eco-Forum and EcoCenter. As a result of their efforts, the first public debate on asbestos issues took place on April 20-21, 2009 during The International Expert Conference on Asbestos and POPs: Policies and Practices in Kazakhstan and the European Union in Astana.4
The 75 participants who attended the meeting held at the Hotel Diplomat in Astana heard presentations from eminent experts such as Dr. Ivan Ivanov from the World Health Organization (WHO) who reported a recent declaration by the International Agency for Research on Cancer which reconfirmed the carcinogenic nature of chrysotile; in April 2009, IARC reaffirmed that chrysotile causes mesothelioma, cancer of the lungs, larynx and ovary. The WHO, like the International Labor Organization, agrees that the most effectives strategy to eliminate asbestos related diseases is to stop the use of chrysotile and other types of asbestos.
Norbert Jousten, head of the European Commission delegation to Kazakhstan, endorsed the work of the conference and highlighted the need to raise awareness of the asbestos hazard while Alain Couanon, the French Ambassador, spoke about the dangers posed by chrysotile; asbestos was the principle cause of occupational cancer in France. The situation in the Netherlands mirrored that in France, the Dutch ambassador Klaas van der Tempel admitted. He told delegates of a new study undertaken by his government which proved that had early warnings been heeded, 34,000 lives could have been saved. Asbestos bans adopted by dozens of industrialized countries reflected, said Alexander Nies, the Deputy Director General of the German Ministry for the Environment, the scientific consensus that asbestos is a human carcinogen.
The lack of reliable information on asbestos in Kazakhstan exacerbates the occupational and public health risk the substance poses. Including chrysotile on the prior informed consent list of the Rotterdam Convention would result in an exchange of information between asbestos importers and exporters that would provide much needed guidance and information to at-risk workers, members of the public and government agencies, Dr. Donald Cooper, the Executive Secretary of the Rotterdam Convention, told conference delegates.
Majit Turmagambetov, Kakzathan's new Vice Minister of the Environment, played an active role in the conference as did other representatives from the Environment Ministry, and the Health Ministry. At the end of the asbestos segment of the conference, the Astana Asbestos Resolution was unanimously adopted; it included four recommendations to the Government of the Kazakh Republic:
The joint resolution is a milestone for Kazakhstan in terms of asbestos, agreed conference organizers Kaisha Athakanova, President of the Kazakh environmental NGO network Eco Forum and Sascha Gabizon, WECF Executive Director. Never before has the issue of potential hazards and health risks of white asbestos been the subject of open dialogue. This was a real historic conference, which has opened the door in the right direction, they agreed.
May 5, 2009
1 According to data from the United States Geological Survey in 2007 the world's biggest producers of chrysotile asbestos were: Russia 925,000 tons, China 380,000 tons and Kazakhstan 300,000 tons; the biggest consumers were: China 636,099 tons, India 302,139 tons, Kazakhstan 300,000 and Russia 280,019 tons.
4 POPs: Persistant Organic Pollutants.