“International High-Level Expert Conference on Chemical Safety and Rotterdam Convention: Policies and Practices in Russia” 

Report by Dr Sjaak Burgers



A conference attended by international experts was held in Moscow on October 14 and 15, 2010. ECO Accord Russia organised the meeting in collaboration with non-governmental organisations such as “Women in Europe for a Common Future” and foreign ministries from Germany, France and the Netherlands. The conference venue was the International Center for Scientific and Technical Information.


The main purpose of this conference was to progress the ratification of the Rotterdam Convention by Russia. The Rotterdam Convention (RC) is an international agreement on chemical trade. The RC's Executive Co-secretary, Donald Cooper, explained clearly that the Convention is not meant to limit trade or ban specific chemicals from trade. The Convention sets rules for trade with dangerous chemicals by a procedure called “trade by consent”. Under the Rotterdam Convention, lists are constructed of dangerous chemicals. Countries that approve the Convention indicate that they want to be notified in advance before another country exports dangerous materials, i.e. those which have been listed, to them. This prior notification has the major advantage that the receiving country knows that the chemical is coming, where it is coming from and what procedures are required for handling it safely. For many developing countries, this is the first time that such detailed information on listed products are made available to them.

The discussion which took place in Moscow on the Rotterdam Convention was informed by a presentation on the burden of pesticides in Russia by a representative of the Russian Department of Agriculture. Many tons of illegal pesticides are brought to Russia via neighbouring countries. Several departments of the Russian government are involved in the legislation and maintenance of the legislation on hazardous chemicals. During the discussion, a Russian delegate to the conference pointed out that at the time of the ratification of the Rotterdam Convention, Russia was not yet ready to join. Things had however changed and the time might now be right for Russia to become a party to the Convention. Such a step looks likely given the fact that there were no objections raised during the conference to Russia joining. It is believed that in the near future, this proposal will be considered at the highest level of the government.


Another main topic under discussion during this conference was asbestos; unlike the issue of joining the Rotterdam Convention, this subject generated a lot of controversy. Despite several attempts to include chrysotile (white asbestos) on the Convention list of dangerous chemicals, it has not yet been listed. The issue of whether or not such a listing was appropriate or desirable generated considerable discussion.


Readers and visitors of this website might think that it is quite obvious that chrysotile, the most abundant type of asbestos, is carcinogenic. Nevertheless, the issue of whether or not chrysotile is carcinogenic was hotly contested in Moscow with the most vociferous denials coming from delegates representing the Chrysotile Labour Trade Union. Evidence supporting the view that chrysotile is carcinogenic was presented by scientific and medical experts including a spokesperson for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The first IARC monograph on asbestos was published in 1973.This and following papers repeatedly confirmed the oncogenic effect of all types of asbestos, including chrysotile. Other examples of the consequences of human exposure to asbestos were provided by medical experts. There was a consensus amongst the experts that supported the view that all types of asbestos, including chrysotile, are carcinogenic. Given the obvious dangers of hazardous exposures, the need for measures to minimize these exposures was agreed.

Appropriate measures to safeguard human health and the environment from asbestos contamination through occupational guidelines and legislation were discussed by representatives of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and the Governments of Germany, France and the Netherlands. In 1986, the ILO had already stipulated in their Asbestos Convention that asbestos should be replaced by less harmful materials. The ILO has consistently upheld this view, citing it in subsequent documents. In September 2010, the ILO issued a further statement on asbestos which promoted “the elimination of the future use of all forms of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials.” The speakers from European Governments discussed national strategies for phasing out the use of asbestos. In each country this was a process that took more than 20 years from the first regulations until a complete ban was introduced in the 1990s. Banning asbestos, however, was not the end of the problems caused by national asbestos use. The incidence of asbestos-induced diseases is still increasing in France and Germany, and might currently be levelling of in the Netherlands; the high numbers of people contracting asbestos-related diseases has a major economical and financial impact in each country. Even though Germany had banned asbestos, in 1993 the costs of asbestos-related health problems were estimated at € 50,000,000,000. Eighty percent of this expenditure went on pensions for those too ill to continue working; the remainder was spent on eliminating asbestos from the environment.

Unfortunately, no representatives from the Russian government were present during the discussion on the final resolution. Information received after the conference suggested that some Ministry officials scheduled to take part had been pressurized to withdraw by pro-asbestos lobbyists. All the delegates in attendance agreed on a Resolution consisting of six points,1 It said:

“There is strong evidence around the world and in international organisations on the severe health consequences of the use of asbestos. In the event of doubts about the validity of this evidence, at least application of the precautionary principle requires careful consideration and control of all steps of the asbestos life-cycle.”

Two weeks prior to the Moscow meeting, Premier Putin had publicly stated that prevention was the cheapest and most efficient way to improve health and raise life expectancy in Russia. Bearing this in mind, it was decided to send him a copy of the Resolution as the implementation of its recommendations could make a major contribution to preventing future illness in Russia.

November 2, 2010


1 Resolution from the “ International High-Level expert Conference on Chemical Safety and Rotterdam Convention:
Policies and Practices in Russia”




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