Asbestos Profile: United Nations 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



(Updated May 2018)

Long after regional and national asbestos bans were implemented in much of the developed world, the United Nations' agencies responsible for safeguarding global occupational and public health remained paralyzed in the face of a massive propaganda campaign by the asbestos industry [Killing the Future – Asbestos Use in Asia and Controversies at International Organizations over Asbestos Industry Influence]. In March 2005, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced its decision to ban the use of asbestos in all its projects [Mounting Pressure for Global Ban]. It took more than a year for the International Labor Organization and the World Health Organization, specialized agencies of the UN, to catch up; in July and October 2006, the ILO and WHO, reversed decades of ineffective asbestos polices by issuing statements supporting the banning of asbestos [ILO Support for Asbestos Ban!,   WHO Support of Global Asbestos Ban].

Other UN efforts to reduce the global impact of asbestos include those made under the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. On February 21, 2002 the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) announced that "all forms of asbestos should be added to an international list of chemicals subject to trade controls." [United Nations Supports Restrictions on Asbestos] Unfortunately, the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos on the PIC list was blocked by asbestos stakeholder governments in 2004, 2006 and 2008 [Chrysotile Asbestos: Hazardous to Humans, Deadly to the Rotterdam Convention] [Rotterdam treaty Killed by Chrysotile Asbestos] [Rotterdam Convention: Chrysotile Update] [International Toxics Convention Wrecked] [End of the Road for the Rotterdam Convention] [Rotterdam Convention (COP4) Dossier]; vested interests led by Canada in 2011 and by Russia in 2013 again blocked the listing of chrysotile on Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention [Canada, A Pariah State] [Rotterdam Convention 2013 - an Activist's Diary] [Report from the Asbestos Frontline: Update from Geneva!] [Press Release: Rotterdam Convention moving backwards, say civil society groups] [Asbestos Showdown in Geneva].

In February 2007, another UNEP initiative, the 8th Global Civil Society Forum (GCSF-8), deemed asbestos a priority issue and called for a global program for the elimination of asbestos use. In early 2007, UNEP staff followed up reports of asbestos contamination created by the 2004 tsunami and other disasters in talks with the WHO and ILO about developing a joint strategy on asbestos not only for UN agencies but also for scores of NGOs and development partners. Unfortunately these talks did not progress beyond the exploratory stage due to the departure of the key UNEP employee steering the discussions (March 2007) .

Amongst international agencies, asbestos seems to fall in a "fuzzy" area; while the ILO and WHO have clearly demarcated responsibilities for occupational and public health respectively, the issue of environmental health seems to be something of an orphan [Killing the Future – Asbestos Use in Asia]. Narrow remits of other international agencies and multilateral agreements dealing with aspects of the asbestos hazard, such as the use of asbestos-cement building products for housing, the global dumping of asbestos-containing waste and the safety of ship-breaking workers, compound the on-going neglect of this contentious subject.1

Throughout 2008, it was reported that the ILO and WHO were in talks to achieve coordinated action on the asbestos hazard. That a consensus had been reached amongst global agencies was obvious from comments made at The XVIIIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work - Global Forum for Prevention which took place in Seoul, Korea from June 29 to July 2, 2008. Representatives of the ILO, the WHO, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the International Social Security Association were in total agreement about the need to eliminate the global use of all types of asbestos, including chrysotile. Igor Fedotov from the ILO said that "Asbestos is increasingly seen as the major challenge for occasional and public health policies worldwide" [see: Consensus on Asbestos Hazard].

Although WHO and ILO collaboration on asbestos has resulted in stronger positions being taken by both organizations supporting the phasing out of asbestos use [Asbestos Policies of Major International Agencies], a controversial collaboration by the International Agencies for Research on Cancer, an intergovernmental agency which is part of the WHO, with Russian asbestos scientists has caused a furore amongst independent researchers, health campaigners and asbestos victims [The Lancet Highlights IARC Controversy]. Although, the findings of the contentious IARC-Russian collaboration are yet to be published, IARC representatives continue to reiterate support for urgent action on banning asbestos [IARC Scientists Unequivocal over Support for Complete Asbestos Ban].

Updated May 2018


1Three such initiatives are the: UN Habitat, the United Nations agency responsible for promoting socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, a UNEP-administered multilateral agreement tasked with preventing the dumping of toxins in developing countries, and the International Maritime Organization, a specialist UN agency charged with, among other things, preventing marine pollution.



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