Chrysotile (white asbestos), which was commonly used in domestic appliances and building construction throughout the UK until the mid-1980s and, subsequently, banned in more than 40 countries around the world – including all 25 European Union members – still poses a serious risk to vast populations of industrial workers in the developing world.

Despite today’s universal asbestos awareness of exposure to the deadly asbestos fibres, inevitably, leading to the fatal mesothelioma and asbestosis cancers, attempts to prohibit or reduce its’ manufacture and export for increasing use in the developing economies is repeatedly denied.

The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade was set up in 2004 “ …to promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts among parties in the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals and to protect human health and the environment from potential harm.”

Although clear guidelines were put into place to try and ensure importing countries are fully informed of potential hazardous substances and their safehandling, inclusion on the Prior Informed Consent list does not actually constitute a ban on the import of the hazardous substance.

Chrysotile, which remains the predominant asbestos fibre still in worldwide use, has been consistently blocked from inclusion on the Prior Informed Consent list by a small group of asbestos exporting countries, led by Canada. The last failed attempt was supported by over 90 per cent of the Conference of the Parties in 2008.

Between 1968 and 1971, before the UK ban, up to an estimated 68 per cent of all asbestos in use was imported from Canada and now makes up the majority of asbestos imported by developing countries, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Colombia, Vietnam and Iran.

Figures for 2009 show that 150,000 tonnes of asbestos was shipped from Canada to other countries including Indonesia, India and the Philippines. A recent proposal for the next underground mining project could increase Canada’s annual chrysotile production to around 260,000 tonnes, half of which, probably earmarked for export to India,

The next Conference of the Parties is to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, June 2011. However, it is expected that the vote to include chrysotile asbestos on the Prior Consent List will once again be challenged by the vested interests of the Canadian government in support of their expanding asbestos industry.