The link between chrysotile asbestos and illnesses such as mesothelioma will be high on the agenda when the sixth UN Rotterdam Convention meets in Geneva, Switzerland in late April.
The group, made up of representatives from around the world, will be considering whether or not chrysotile or white asbestos will finally be added to the list of Controlled Hazardous Substances. The Rotterdam Convention was assembled in 2002 with the goal of protecting people and the environment from toxic chemicals like asbestos. However, in order to include chrysotile asbestos on the list, the vote of all represented countries must be unanimous. In the past, countries that still export, import or use asbestos, including Canada, Brazil, Russia and India, have worked to keep chrysotile off the toxic list. India withdrew its objection in 2011, but Canada has held its ground.
A naturally-occurring mineral, asbestos was once highly prized as a strong, inexpensive and heat-resistant additive to insulation and many building products. But after medical studies linked it to mesothelioma, lung cancer and chronic illnesses like asbestosis, the use of asbestos dropped dramatically. Many countries have banned the substance. According to an article in The Lancet, chrysotile asbestos is the only type still produced and accounts for more than 95% of all asbestos mined.
Despite the mesothelioma risk, Canada, Russia and several other countries continue to maintain multi-billion dollar asbestos industries, selling it primarily to underdeveloped countries such as Bangladesh where regulations may be lax or nonexistent. Not surprisingly, the rates of mesothelioma in and around asbestos mining towns are dramatically higher than other parts of the world. Mesothelioma is usually an extremely rare cancer, making up a tiny fraction of all cancer cases. But in places where asbestos dust is prevalent – such as Libby, Montana, home of a former U.S. asbestos mine – mesothelioma rates can be hundreds of times higher than in the general population.
Mesothelioma occurs when inhaled or ingested asbestos fibers lodge in the tissue, setting up chronic irritation and inflammation at the cellular level. Over time, this inflammatory response can lead to DNA damage and eventually mesothelioma. Mesothelioma grows on the membranes that line the heart, lungs or abdomen.
Although news reports in advance of the Rotterdam Convention, which runs from April 28 to May 10, suggest that Canada may finally stop opposing chrysotile’s addition to the toxic list, several other major players still oppose it. Worldwide, the World Health Organization reports that 90,000 people a year die of asbestos-related diseases which includes mesothelioma and asbestosis. In a joint statement released in February, the WHO and the International Agency for Research on Cancer stated that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic and called for an end to all uses of asbestos.
“Dissenting Industrialists Filibuster inclusion of Chrysotile in Rotterdam Treaty’s Repeated Appeal to Censure Asbestos, curtail Mesothelioma”, March 12, 2013, PR Web.
Holmes, David, “IARC in the dock over ties with asbestos industry”, February 2, 2013, The Lancet, pp. 359-361.