White ‘chrysotile’ asbestos – a known cause of mesothelioma and other asbestosis diseases – has once again failed to be listed as a hazardous substance by the Rotterdam Convention, held from 24 April to 5 May 2017. Under a United Nations treaty, an international convention of participating countries meets every two years in Geneva, Switzerland to decide which listed dangerous substances are to be only imported with “prior informed consent.”

This is the sixth time that an attempt by now some 190 countries to list white asbestos has been blocked by a tiny minority – Russia, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, India, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Syria. Not surprisingly, many medical experts, asbestos victims support groups and asbestosis lawyers have expressed disappointment that there is even opposition to recognising chrysotile as a substance hazardous to health.

The limited powers of the Rotterdam Convention means it is restricted to simply regulating the import of hazardous substances, which allows developing countries to make informed trading decisions. The formal listing of a substance as a hazardous material list does not impose a ban but only requires exporting countries to obtain prior informed consent (PIC) from an importing country.

Across the world, the asbestos economy continues to flourish

Throughout most of the twentieth century, thousands of workers were constantly exposed to the deadly asbestos fibre dust in mining, manufacturing, construction, heavy engineering and ship building industries. From as early as the 1930s in the UK but especially during the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the raising of asbestos awareness to the long term health risks eventually led to all forms of asbestos to be banned in more than 50 countries, worldwide.

While Britain finally banned the imports of chrysotile asbestos white asbestos in 1999 and its use prohibited by EU directive in January 2005, elsewhere across the world, the asbestos economy continues to flourish. Up until the late 1970s and early 80s, around 5 million metric tonnes of asbestos was being used by around 25 countries per year, and supplied to 85 countries involved in industrial scale manufacture of asbestos products.

Asbestos is currently banned in just 55 countries around the world, which means that around 16 per cent of the world’s population – an estimated 1.1 billion people are no longer at risk of exposure to the deadly material. However, despite being classified as a class 1 carcinogen by the British government, chrysotile white asbestos, continues to be considered a ‘low risk’ material by the key exporting countries.

Myth that chrysotile fibres were not harmful

Their argument loosely refers to medical research, which goes back more than thirty years to 1985 when the UK banned the most dangerous brown and blue asbestos fibres as an insulation material. However, white asbestos was allowed to continue in the manufacture of building materials as a cement binding agent, such as pipe lagging, wallboards and roofing sheets.

The decision was based on the ability of the body’s immune system to expel the different fibre types over a period of time. The structure of white chrysotile asbestos fibres is curly or “serpentine”. They are longer, thinner and found to be more flexible than the insoluble rigid, needle fibres of the ‘amphibole’ brown amosite and blue crocidolite fibre types. It was found that inhaled chrysotile fibre particles were less likely to be permanently embedded in the lung linings and more able to be “broken down”. As a result, it was thought that a higher number was likely to expelled over a shorter period of time. Although the fibres may be more quickly removed from the lung lining tissue than other types, they may not entirely leave the body.

There is usually a long delay of up to 50 years or more before the first asbestosis symptoms appear and it was thought that the risk of cancer cells developing would decrease over time. As a result, a myth arose that chrysotile fibres “ by themselves” were not harmful. Yet, exposure to and breathing in of chrysotile asbestos fibre dust particles alone, has consistently been found to eventually lead to mesothelioma.

Fatal long term health risks are repeatedly ignored

Russia, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and until recently, Canada, are well known for continuing to mine and export white chrysotile asbestos to a number of developing nations, including India. The Asian sub continent is not only the largest exporter of white asbestos, the demand is so high that asbestos imports rose by nearly 30 per cent to 3.96 million tonnes in 2015-16, up from 2.85 million tonnes in 2013-14. To the growing concern of the international medical community, the fatal long term health risks are repeatedly ignored, which means that diagnosis and deaths from mesothelioma are significantly underestimated.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain up to date, accurate figures of mesothelioma fatalities because most of the countries involved in asbestos importing possess insufficient population records. Just 13 per cent of the population in China is covered by a register for cancer while in India, the problem is made more difficult because only 7 per cent of the population is covered.

The estimated annual global figure for cancer fatality is 7.6 million, one-third of which is preventable, according to the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) say that asbestos claims the lives of more than 100,000 people every year, up from the 92,000 deaths caused by mesothelioma between 1994 and 2008. It is predicted that125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos in the workplace, and as a result, 107,000 will die every year.

The next meeting of the Rotterdam Convention is now due in 2019, where for the 7th time, it is hoped the deadly mineral fibre will finally be listed as a hazardous substance.