Asbestos — not here, not anywhere in the world

Katie Camarena

Workers in Vietnam load asbestos roofing sheets

For decades, unionists fought a long, hard fight against a powerful industry. We got there and we now have a total ban on asbestos.

Despite the ban, asbestos is still getting into Australia. It makes its way in through construction materials, mechanical parts, in school science kits and, recently, traces of asbestos were found in children’s crayons. Our effort to eradicate this poison is being undermined by illegally imported products.

As long as asbestos is used anywhere it remains a risk everywhere. The World Health Organisation says the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos. We have a vested interest in, and moral obligation to work towards a global ban. Seeing asbestos listed globally as a banned chemical is a start.

Later this month, a meeting regarding the Rotterdam Convention will take place in Geneva. The Convention is an agreement between 157 countries to regulate dangerous chemicals and pesticides in order to protect and safeguard the health of people and their environment. Asbestos has not yet made it on to the list of banned chemicals so 2017 is an important year for the global community to take a big step towards reaching getting asbestos added to the list once and for all.

Over the last decade, activists and governments around the world, including Australia, have been campaigning to have chrysotile asbestos listed as a banned chemical. The United Nations bodies responsible for the convention (UNEP and FAO) also recommend chrysotile be listed.

With each sitting of the Rotterdam Convention, around 150 countries vote to add chrysotile asbestos to the list. Yet their vote is blocked by a small number of countries including Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Kyrgyzstan and Zimbabwe. These few countries also happen to be the biggest exporters of chrysotile. They succeed because the voting system allows them to.

Changing the voting rules will resolve the procedural problems that threaten the core objective of the Convention. This year, a group of 11 African countries are proposing a change to the voting system at Rotterdam. Like us, they are fed up with the small number of countries continually blocking the listing of chemicals without any good reason. This change would mean that even if all countries do not agree, a chemical could be listed once 75 per cent of countries agree. It would make the voting system more like other conventions such as the Stockholm and Basel Conventions, which deal with pollutants and waste disposal of dangerous products.

In the lead-up to this month’s Rotterdam Convention meeting, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA is working with unions and anti-asbestos campaigners around the world to build momentum to support the African-led change. It is also launching a social media campaign in support of victims.

By joining Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA and donating $15 a month (or more) you can support our work in Asia to ban asbestos. Join today! You will find more information here.