Toxic Trade News / 7 January 2006
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French defend toxic ship, got WTO to ban asbestos import
Canada which exports 90% of its asbestos to India was stopped by WTO from sending it to France, because France didn't want any of it
by Sonu Jain, The Sunday Express - Indian Express Newspapers

7 January 2006 (New Delhi) – This story could have a lesson for India. The players are the same: France and Canada. France, the country that’s sending the asbestos-laden ship, Clemenceau, to India. Canada, the country that exports nearly 90% of its asbestos—an estimated 1 lakh tonnes—to India each year.

Both these countries had a dispute over trade in asbestos which was resolved by the WTO in 2001 in favour of a French ban.

WTO said that no “safe use” of asbestos was possible even in a developed country like France and the country was right in banning its use, manufacture and trade.

In 1997, France banned all forms of asbestos fibres and products prompting Canada, one of the largest producers and exporters of white asbestos, to go to WTO’s Appellate Authority against what it called a barrier to ‘‘free trade.’’

France won the bitterly contested fight where a wealth of scientific evidence was presented to show why a country cannot permit ‘‘safe, controlled’’ use of asbestos.

WTO, the biggest votary of free trade, agreed with the ban on the grounds of ‘‘protecting human life or health’’. It said: “Safe use in the general population at risk is impossible’’ given the extremely large numbers of persons concerned, the difficulty of assessing the risk, the complexity of individual and collective protection. It even identified Mesothelioma lung cancer cases in fitters, carpenters, plumber, boiler makers, painters, decorators, welders, dockers, metal sprayers, electric engineers, industrial designers and technicians.

Flying in the face of all this, A K Sethi, president of the trade body, the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association, said white asbestos used here is safe because it is mixed with cement in a ‘‘wet process.’’

The WTO panel was not convinced about this argument: ‘‘When asbestos cement is used for occupational or domestic purposes, it is usually sanded, crushed or sawn, thus, releasing its carcinogenic fibres into the environment in the form of dust.’’

All drainage and irrigation pipes in India contain asbestos. So do all roof fittings, electric fittings and pipes. ‘‘These involve peeling, cracking and crumbling which would release asbestos fibre,’’ explained the panel.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral and according to doctors, causes lung impairment and even a severe form of lung cancer. India today is the largest importer of asbestos under Open General Licence. Despite the Supreme Court’s directions to regulate and monitor the trade for health hazards, the Rs 2,000-crore asbestos industry has no regulatory apparatus in place with no record of how many are suffering from asbestos-related illnesses. A PIL in the Supreme Court documents 500 cases.

But regulation, too, wasn’t a solution, said the WTO as it upheld the ban. ‘‘Available scientific data show that a high mortality rate persists despite the so-called safe use of asbestos. Safe use policy is based on an at-source control system which is never possible in practice,’’ the WTO panel said.

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