UK Moves Forward with Chrysotile Ban Proposal
The guest contributor to Focus this month is John Manos.
Despite the possibility that its action might be open to legal challenge, the UK Health and Safety Commission in September 1998 published proposals, in its second consultative document on asbestos in six months, to prohibit non-essential uses of chrysotile (white) asbestos in the UK with effect from next year.
In April, the HSC, taking note of the European Commission's caution on this issue, excluded its already-formulated proposal for a UK chrysotile ban from its consultative document proposing tightening and re-focussing of existing UK worker protection regulations (see Focus April 1998). New legal duties are to be introduced to cover incidental asbestos exposure situations, such as in buildings, as opposed to industrial exposures, which are now very few.
The HSC's new proposal for "further restrictions on importation, supply and use of white asbestos" could be challenged on the grounds that it is in breach of international trade regulations. Such a challenge has been issued by Canada against France, which introduced a chrysotile ban in 1996. Canada claims that the French chrysotile ban breaches World Trade Organisation rules because, for example, it is inconsistent with ILO agreements on asbestos which accept continued use of chrysotile.
This dispute has made it more important for the scientific case for bans on chrysotile to be well-founded.
In July, while the European Commission was still waiting for clearance from its scientific committee on carcinogenicity before proceeding with an EU-wide chrysotile ban, the equivalent UK committee - the Department of Health's Committee on Carcinogenicity (CoC) - presented a report on the safety of substitutes to the HSC. Since long-term epidemiological data for chrysotile substitutes - PVA, p-Aramid and cellulose - is not available, the CoC had commissioned a "comparative risk assessment" using data on their physical properties (e.g. fibre dimensions and potential for fragmentation). The CoC report concluded that the substitute fibres' carcinogenic risk was less, and that their biopersistence was lower, than chrysotile; and that, anyway, occupational exposures were likely to remain below the chrysotile control limit.
The HSC decided that this was sufficient scientific justification for progressing with public consultation on a national ban, which it had postponed in April. (The HSE stresses that it would still prefer to see a ban in Europe rather than take action unilaterally.)
European trade union body expresses concern
Before any European ban can be progressed, according to a detailed article on the subject in the June newsletter of the European Trade Union Technical Bureau for Health and Safety (TUTB), the European Commission's scientific committee still needed to consider final versions of two relevant reports: (i) on the hazards of chrysotile and the relative safety of substitutes, and (ii) on the socio-economic consequences of a European ban. An interim version of the safety of substitutes report had been criticised by the scientific committee earlier in the year and this was one reason why a Commission proposal for a ban had not been forthcoming during the UK presidency.
An editorial in the same issue of the TUTB publication, suggested that if Canada succeeds with its ongoing ease under WTO disputes procedure, France and other countries that have banned chrysotile might have to change their laws. If that were to happen, says the editorial, an extraordinary limitation on WTO signatory states's rights to regulate hazardous materials would have been established.
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 The new consultative document proposes prohibiting all uses of chrysotile, "except for a few essential uses where adequate substitute materials have not yet been developed". This would make specific the legal duty to substitute which already exists; it would be accompanied by official advice on implementation (concerning, mainly, asbestos cement products).
The consultative document Proposals for Amendments to the Asbestos
(Prohibitions) Regulations 1992 CD is available from HSE Books, PO Box
1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6FS, UK | Tel :+44 (0) 1787 881165 | Fax: +44 (0) 1787
313995 | It is also available on HSE's website at:
 Asbestos ban - towards a European consensus - II,
TUTB Newsletter (no. 9), June 1998 from the European Trade Union Bureau for Health
and Safety, Boulevard Emile Jacqmain, 155, B1210 Brussels, Belgium, Tel: +32 3 224
05 60 Fax: +32 2 224 05 61, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org,
Web Site: www.etui.org
European Editor, European Safety Newsletter
23 Strat. Syndesmou