Asbestos, Rotterdam & the Feds: Understanding the new policy in Canada

Tue, Oct 30, 2012

Asbestos, Misc.

Kathleen Ruff

HazMat Magazine, Fall 2012, page 22,

In an extraordinary and dramatic turn of events, the Canadian government has announced that it will no longer oppose the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention.

Industry Minister, Christian Paradis, made the announcement at 3 pm on Friday, September 14 in his constituency at Thetford Mines. For years, Paradis has been the leading cheerleader for the asbestos industry.

Paradis blamed the newly elected Parti Québécois (PQ) government for causing Ottawa to reverse its pro-asbestos policy. PQ leader, Pauline Marois has promised to cancel the $58 million loan to revive the bankrupt and closed-down Quebec asbestos industry – a loan that previous Quebec premier, Jean Charest, allocated just shortly before calling the election.

Marois clearly intends to end asbestos mining in Quebec, said Paradis. “It would be illogical for Canada to oppose the inclusion of chrysotile (asbestos) in annex III of the Rotterdam Convention when Quebec, the only province that produces chrysotile, will prohibit its exploitation.”


In recent decades, the production and export of chemicals has risen dramatically. This has created serious concern from both a public health and environmental perspective, particularly since many countries lack an adequate infrastructure to monitor the import and use of chemicals and pesticides that are hazardous to human health and the environment.

Consequently, in the 1980s, the United Nations set up a voluntary system which encouraged countries to share information about hazardous chemicals and to obtain Prior Informed Consent from an importing country before shipping hazardous chemicals to that country. This voluntary system proved inadequate, however, and at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, governments decided to create a legally binding international Agreement that would ensure that countries had the necessary information to enable them to assess the risks of hazardous chemicals and to take informed decisions on their import.

Thus the Rotterdam Convention was born. Its purpose is to promote responsible trade in hazardous substances and it is often referred to as the Prior Informed Consent Convention. It was adopted in Rotterdam in September 1998 and entered into force on February 24, 2004.

Efforts were made to voluntarily place certain hazardous substances on Annex III of the Convention (which triggers the Prior Informed Consent requirement), including chrysotile asbestos. The Canadian government refused to allow listing of chrysotile asbestos.

The Chemical Review Committee (CRC) of the Rotterdam Convention, made up of scientists from around the world, therefore carried out a full scientific review and concluded that chrysotile asbestos is a hazardous substance that should be listed in Annex III.

When the CRC’s recommendation was put before the Conference of the Parties in 2006, Canada immediately blocked the recommendation. Decisions at the Conference of the Parties are made by consensus and Canada shattered consensus. Kyrgyzstan, Iran, India, Ukraine and Peru then supported Canada’s action.

At the start of the last Conference of the Parties in 2011, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Vietnam opposed listing chrysotile asbestos. Canada stayed silent. Then these countries dropped their opposition and agreed to the listing of chrysotile asbestos. At this moment, Canada broke its silence, refused to allow the listing of chrysotile asbestos and refused to give any reason. Canada said that it agreed that chrysotile asbestos met all the criteria for listing.

Canada thus single-handedly blocked the listing of chrysotile asbestos and prevented the recommendation of the expert scientific committee from being implemented. An Access to Information request revealed that Health Canada likewise recommended that Canada allow chrysotile asbestos to be listed.

One hopes that with Paradis’ announcement that the Canadian government will cease blocking the Convention, the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties in 2013 will see consensus prevail to accept the recommendation of the expert committee to list chrysotile asbestos, which recommendation will be put forward for the fourth time.

Russia will, in 2013, be a party to the Rotterdam Convention. Russia is the world’s largest exporter of asbestos, exporting 748,000 tons of asbestos in 2011. Will Russia pick up Canada’s role of saboteur of the Convention? It may well try to do so. If so, enormous pressure will be exerted by the more than a hundred other countries present and, as did former USSR member countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine at the 2011 conference, Russia may find itself obliged to go along with the huge global consensus to list chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance.

Kathleen Ruff is author of Exporting Harm: How Canada Markets Asbestos to the Developing World and founder of She is senior human rights adviser to the Rideau Institute.

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