Joint Chemical Conference Disappoints Those Seeking Action on Asbestos, Paraquat

May 18, 2013 in Latest News

By Daniel Pruzin, Bloomberg BNA, Daily Report for Executives

GENEVA—The first-ever joint Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm conventions on the production and trade of hazardous chemicals and waste wrapped up May 10 with officials admitting the results were less than they had hoped for.

The two-week meeting in Geneva secured the approval of a new global ban on the production and use of the brominated flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) under the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (88 DER A-14, 5/7/13).

However, a five-year exemption from the production ban was granted for use of HBCD in expanded polystyrene and extruded polystyrene in building insulation.

Delegates also agreed to new controls on international trade in four chemicals under the Rotterdam Convention on the prior informed consent (PIC) procedure for certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides.

The chemicals are azinphos methyl, an insecticide; perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), its salts, and precursors, an industrial chemical used in a variety of products as a grease, oil, and water repellent; pentabromodiphenyl ether (penta-BDE) commercial mixtures, used as a flame retardant; and octabromodipheny ether (octa-BDE) commercial mixtures, also used as a flame retardant.

Listings of Two Substances Rejected

However, proposals for the listing of two additional and more widely traded chemicals and substances were blocked by a handful of countries. Russia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe blocked a proposal to list chrysotile asbestos under the Rotterdam Convention.

Earlier attempts to add chrysotile asbestos to the list were also rejected at Rotterdam COP meetings in 2006, 2008, and 2011 (90 DER A-34, 5/9/13).

In addition, Guatemala and India blocked a decision to subject paraquat dichloride, an herbicide used on a variety of agricultural products, to PIC requirements.

Critics, including environmental groups, said the opposing countries were acting to protect their economic interests.

Under the Rotterdam Convention, a party that plans to export a chemical that is listed in Annex III of the convention and is banned or severely restricted for use within its territory must inform the importing party that such export will take place, before the first shipment and annually thereafter.

All the chemicals and substances proposed for listing were previously approved by scientific experts on the convention’s Chemicals Review Committee (CRC) for listing in Annex III.

‘South-South’ Trade Noted

Jim Willis, executive secretary of the joint chemicals conventions secretariat, said it was notable that developing rather than industrialized countries blocked the listing of chrysotile asbestos and paraquat dichloride.

“Some challenges remain in Rotterdam in listing chemicals with considerable economic or perceived economic value,” he admitted. “These are interesting challenges, because in both cases the countries that have reservations about adding the chemicals are developing countries.”

“What we have witnessed in the past two decades is a transition from the notion that the problems have been [trade] going from wealthy to poorer countries to trade that is almost equally south-south, both in chemicals and in waste,” he added.

Franz Perrez, president of the joint COP and head of the Swiss delegation to the meeting, expressed frustration with the outcome on paraquat dichloride.

One of the biggest producers of the herbicide is the Swiss chemical firm Syngenta, which produces paraquat dichloride under the trade name Gramoxone™ Super. Switzerland bans the use of the chemical at home.

“We’re very disappointed,” Perrez declared. “We have strongly supported the listing of paraquat and are deeply committed to doing everything to make it listed next time.”

Countries’ Arguments Said Out of Bounds

Perrez said a particular concern was that the reasons given for opposing the listing were “not within the philosophy of the convention,” which is to help countries having problems managing the import and use of hazardous chemicals and pesticides on their territory.

“By starting to use arguments that are totally outside of that philosophy, then we think that’s a problem for the functioning of the convention itself,” he declared.

Willis insisted that it would be wrong to describe the joint COP meeting as a disappointment overall because two of the six proposed listings under Rotterdam were blocked.

“There were some outcomes that people would have like to see that didn’t happen,” he said. “And there may be a tendency to magnify that because there were three conventions meeting this week.

“It shouldn’t take away from the great successes that the Rotterdam Convention has had. Adding this group of four chemicals is a particular success because they are known to be quite bad chemicals.”

Substances Stay on Agenda

Willis added that “one marvelous thing about the Rotterdam Convention” is that once a substance is recommended by the CRC for listing, it stays on the COP agenda until there is a decision.

“A chemical that is not listed this time will be on the agenda at the next meeting, and if it’s not added there, it’s on the agenda for the subsequent meeting,” he said.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said even though a proposed substance might not be approved by the COP, the fact that it will remain on the COP agenda “signals ultimately that the substance will in due course disappear.”

“What is sometimes unfortunate is that countries feel compelled, sometimes for very practical reasons, to oppose simply to enable themselves to have more time to deal with very particular national circumstances,” Steiner said. “There are many countries that have invoked this tactic over time, and therefore the convention may need more time to reach a consensus across all member states.

“It’s very easy to say we’ve failed,” the UNEP chief added. “But the fact of the matter is that asbestos essentially has no future. … Do you really believe that after everything that has been discussed here [industry] will invest in that material in the future? No, and in that sense the convention has a direct and indirect value in signaling what are the substances that are not likely to be in the global marketplace in the near or middle term.”

Activists Criticize Holdouts

Activist groups in attendance criticized the blocking of the chrysotile asbestos and paraquat dichloride listings.

Kathleen Ruff, founder of the Ottawa-based RightonCanada and a campaigner against the asbestos trade, said groups were “very disturbed that this conference has so greatly damaged the credibility of he Rotterdam Convention.”

“We have seen abuse of the convention by these seven countries who have raised arguments that are extraneous and irrelevant to the convention,” Ruff declared. “They are displaying contempt for the right of other countries to protect their borders and populations.”

Noting that Russia and Zimbabwe were participating in the COP for the first time as parties, Ruff said, “It’s very clear they are concerned about their commercial interests and their asbestos industry. … It appears clear to us they have ratified the convention in order to wreck it.”

Economic Considerations at Work

Russia is by far the largest exporter of chrysotile asbestos, accounting for three-quarters of the 1 million tons exported in 2011. Brazil, the world’s second largest exporter, declined to take a position at the meeting.

Zimbabwe announced in advance of the COP meeting that it would oppose the listing of chrysotile asbestos. The government is currently looking for investors to reopen the country’s chrysotile asbestos mines.

“There are clear economic considerations that do sometimes factor into situations like this, particularly when economic circumstances are difficult, which they are now for many countries,” Willis noted.

“It’s unfortunate,” he added, “but there are well over 40 chemicals listed on the Rotterdam Convention, we added another 10 percent this week, and so this is an indication [that] for all but a few countries there is keen interest in continuing to strengthen the convention.”

Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant and an observer at the meetings, said India’s position on chrysotile asbestos was driven strictly by commercial interests.

“India has a very powerful asbestos industry, and the use of asbestos is going up very rapidly,” Castleman said, noting that India is second only to China in domestic asbestos consumption. “In order to maintain its profitability, the industry has to avoid the cost of prevention and compensation [to workers]. They’ve done it very well in India.

“There are members of Parliament in India who have financial interests in the asbestos industry, and there are asbestos companies that have media interests in India,” he added. “This is why India has played a leading role at the COP in blocking the listing not only of asbestos but also paraquat at this conference.”

Indian Negotiator Defends Position

Shashi Shekhar, secretary to the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests and head of the Indian delegation to the COP meeting, said India’s objections to both asbestos and paraquat were based on scientific as well as commercial grounds.

“We’ve carried out our own study with the National Institute of Professional Health and they have not found anything serious among the workers that are engaged in the manufacture of asbestos sheet,” he said. “We have not found any serious health concerns.”

Shekhar said asbestos is used in only two limited sectors in India—for the manufacture of asbestos sheet used as a roofing material in low-income housing, and in water piping. “In both cases detailed studies have been carried out and nothing has been found which raised concerns for human health or the environment.”

The asbestos industry “is a billion-dollar industry in our country, with more than 20,000 workers,” he added. “Without having adequate information [to justify action], we thought it was not an appropriate time to commit to a ban. We need to do more studies and then we’ll make a call on that.”

Paraquat Recommendation Questioned

In regards to paraquat dichloride, Shekhar said India had problems accepting international restrictions for various reasons.

First, the proposed recommendation for the listing covered specific liquid formulations (emulsifiable concentrate and soluble concentrate) containing paraquat dichloride at or above 276 grams per liter, corresponding to paraquat ion at or above 200 grams per liter. “We do not know on what basis this [recommendation] has come,” he said.

In addition, Shekhar said the CRC issued its recommendation on paraquat dichloride “based on one country’s notification [from Burkina Faso] and without going into a detailed investigation.

“You shouldn’t recommend anything that will have implications all over the world based on the experience of one country, and the experience of that country is, to my knowledge, not well investigated. That’s why we said it doesn’t meet the listing criteria laid out in the rules.”

Shekhar said India currently imports paraquat dichloride at a concentration below 276 grams per liter and then further dilutes it before it is used as a herbicide. While putting the herbicide on the Rotterdam PIC list would not prohibit its trade, he argued, it would severely curb it, to the detriment of the country’s poor farmers who depend on the herbicide to protect their crops.

“The moment it is listed you have to go through major bureaucratic hurdles to ship,” Shekhar said. “And then the costs go up. We cannot afford to increase input costs. Our farmers are already hard-pressed, and we can’t put them through further distress.”

Russian Group Cites Potential Job Loss

The head of a Russian-based labor group called the International Trade Union Movement for Chrysotile also backed the rejection of the chrysotile asbestos PIC listing on economic grounds.

“Fifty thousand workers will lose their jobs in Russia” if chrysotile asbestos is banned, declared Andrey Kholzakov, president of the group and a representative from the Russian Construction and Building Materials Industry Workers’ Union.

Kholzakov said there was still no scientific consensus on the danger of chrysotile asbestos to human health and that claims of 100,000 deaths each year from asbestos contamination were “exaggerated.”

According to the World Health Organization, more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos related lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposure.