Mounting Pressure for Global Ban
During the first half of 2005, significant progress was made in the campaign to achieve a global ban on the use of asbestos. The asbestos issue has been at the forefront of discussions at recent meetings of international agencies, trade unions and medical associations. In March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced its decision to ban the use of asbestos in all its projects. This action was taken after consultation with the World Health Organization which advised the UNHCR that the World Health Organization does not recommend the use of asbestos cement for roofing. Weeks later, another UN Agency, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), heard calls from trade unions to join the campaign for a global ban; Danish trade unionist Bjorn Erikson explained that the asbestos issue:
is relevant to CSD discussions about human settlements because asbestos is still used throughout the world in the construction of buildings and in manufacturing It has become an urgent necessity to stop all production & trade of asbestos While the use and imports of asbestos is declining in industrialized countries, imports and consumption is on the rise in developing countries where little or no protection is available to those exposed to it.
In May, 2005, the International Labor Organization's (ILO's) 10th International Conference on Occupational Respiratory Diseases, which met in Beijing, recommended that all parties cooperate to achieve a worldwide asbestos ban. Simultaneously, the World Federation of Public Health Associations, meeting in Geneva, called for a global ban on the mining and use of asbestos and urged that international organizations:
establish and implement a global ban on the production and further use of asbestos products thereby making universal what already exists in a growing number of countries and preventing the public health inequities inherent in continued regulatory laxity.
With the availability of safer substitutes such a ban is feasible and necessary to prevent the victimization of peoples in developing countries and those in transition due to inequities in their ability to control unsustainable economic practices.
Also in May, the Collegium Ramazzini, an international academic society, issued its second call for an international ban on asbestos, the final paragraph stating:
Because of economic and technologic considerations, the safe use of asbestos is not practicable. With the proven availability of safer substances, there is no reason to tolerate the public health disaster arising from the production and use of asbestos. The total ban already introduced in a number of countries is spreading and should be extended worldwide. The Collegium Ramazzini calls for an immediate ban on all mining and use of asbestos. To be effective, the ban must be international in scope and must be enforced in every country in the world.1
From May 22-26, 850 delegates from 177 countries attended the 31st World Congress of the International Metalworkers' Federation (IMF) at which they heard calls for the issue of asbestos to be adopted as an IMF action point for 2005-2006. Marcello Malentacchi, IMF General Secretary, said:
While most developed countries are racing to remove asbestos from buildings some countries continue to sell this deadly substance particularly to the developing world No worker, whether in developed or developing countries, should be exposed to asbestos To continue producing this hazardous substance will only prolong the suffering and unnecessary loss of life.
A death counter at the Congress indicated the number of global asbestos deaths occurring as the meeting progressed: one death every five minutes. Despite the mounting death toll, demand for asbestos seems to be increasing. The UK's GMB trade union tabled a resolution at the IMF meeting calling for the intensification of the fight against this global killer; the GMB motion urged that a high profile international campaign be pursued which:
opposed the actions of asbestos producing nations in exporting increasing quantities of the killer product to newly industrialising nations in Asia, the Far East and Africa;
condemns the cynical and dishonest propaganda campaigns mounted by the asbestso producers to promote asbestos as a 'safe' product;
calls upon all governments worldwide to introduce effective legislation that implements preventative and protective measures for all workers liable to be exposed to asbestos during the course of their work.
The ban asbestos resolution was adopted unanimously by the IMF Congress; IMF members signed letters addressed to their respective governments which urged them to support the campaign. Napoleon Kpoh, General Secretary of the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union, took the IMF's ban asbestos message with him when he returned to Accra, Ghana. On June 12, he told journalists:
It has taken three decades of continual effort and the emergence of suitable alternative substances for a comprehensive ban on the manufacture and use of asbestos to be adopted in a number of industrialised countries.
In the news briefing, Mr. Koph quoted extensively from a report by the International Metalworkers' Federation which was highly critical of governments which continue to ignore international conventions and guidance on asbestos. Mr. Koph exposed the hypocrisy of developed countries such as Canada which profit from the export of asbestos but refuse to use it themselves; safer substitutes for asbestos are available and should be used, he concluded.
In June, 2005, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the International Federation of Building and Wood Workers (IFBWW)2 and the Global Union Federations launched a major campaign designed to achieve a global ban on the use of asbestos. During a session held on June 8 at the annual conference of the UN's ILO, Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the ICFTU, told delegates representing workers, employers and governments that:
we believe the evidence showing the dangers of asbestos to be irrefutable Asbestos is a threat to everyone, not just workers, from children in schools, to young and old in private and public buildings where asbestos is present and to whole communities where it exists as a pollutant.
The ICFTU delivered a letter to every government attending the ILO Conference urging them to support national and global asbestos bans. Governments which have adopted unilateral asbestos bans have a vital role to play in this campaign, Ryder pointed out:
You are in a position to work with us and the trade union and employer groups in your country to help convince those governments that still use, produce or trade in asbestos to cease doing so, as a matter or urgent necessity and to start planning a transition process, without delay.
At the Geneva meeting, Ryder pledged the ICFTU's commitment to the campaign saying:
We will extend our appeal to employer, trade union and civil society organisations within every country to get involved in the ban, as a matter of urgency and human decency.
Anita Normark, General Secretary of the IFBWW believes that the elimination of the use of asbestos and asbestos products would have a tremendous impact on health and safety for our workers. The statistics say it all: in the construction industry more workers die from mesothelioma than from workplace falls. The IFBWW has petitioned the ILO Director General, urging that he act on the global asbestos problem, and has highlighted the aggressive marketing campaign in which global asbestos producers sell the killer fiber with the false assurances that it can be used safely under controlled conditions. Acknowledging the unions' call for a global ban, ILO Executive Director of the Social Protection Sector Assane Diop said that the wide use of asbestos in the 60s and 70s has caused a world epidemic which is well-known today in the developed countries and is growing fast in the developing ones.
Canadian asbestos stakeholders, with the political and financial support of their government, continue to orchestrate global support for asbestos through the machinations of the Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute, formerly known as the Asbestos Institute. Over recent years, the industry's monopoly of the national asbestos debate has been shattered by the emergence of new groups and individuals willing to speak out about the devastation caused by asbestos at home and abroad. On May 31, 2005, the Canadian Association for Research on Work and Health (CARWH) passed an Asbestos Resolution which called upon:
the federal government to cease its support for the asbestos industry and ban the mining, production and use, as well as, the export of asbestos.
Further Be It Resolved that, CARWH call upon the federal and provincial Quebec government to provide the necessary financial and logistic support for an economically just transition and environmental remediation for the asbestos mining community.
Shortly after this Resolution was signed, a report entitled Insight on Cancer3 was published by the Canadian Cancer Society; this document examined data on asbestos and seven other cancer-causing contaminants and stated that:
While asbestos use is strictly controlled in most workplaces, exposures still occur in both workplaces and the community. Asbestos exposure in asbestos mining communities have led to significantly increased incidence of asbestos related cancers. We are in the midst of an epidemic of work related mesothelioma cases, which due to long latency periods, is yet to peak. Canada's promotion and sale of asbestos worldwide compromises our ability to be taken seriously regarding cancer prevention, and exports environmental exposure and cancers to those countries with the least resources to control them. Transition programs for mining communities are needed and the sale and use of this potent carcinogen should be banned.
Analysing Canada's role in opposing international asbestos bans, the authors cite:
Canada's challenge at the World Trade Organization of the French asbestos ban;
Canada's leadership of the pro-asbestos veto of a United Nations' proposal to impose controls on global asbestos sales;
the federal government's $775,000 donation to the Asbestos Institute.
Considering the country's slavish support of the asbestos industry, it is unlikely that the following recommendation made in the report will be acted upon:
Until Canada bans asbestos uses completely, Ontario, as Canada's most populous and industrialized province, should consider acting unilaterally.
August 11, 2005
1 Collegium Ramazzini Call for an International Ban on Asbestos. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. 2005; 47, 6; 471-474. Website: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/abstract/110495927/ABSTRACT
2 The IFBWW organizes 279 trade unions with over 10.5 million members in 127 countries.