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[GreenYes] Trade and the Environment

WTO Upholds French Ban on Asbestos

GENEVA, Switzerland, March 13, 2001 (ENS) - The World Trade Organization has ruled that France did not violate international trade rules when it banned asbestos. 

Anxious to protect a C$200 million (US$129 million) a year business, Canada had appealed an earlier WTO decision on the basis that the international trade organization acted outside of its mandate by upholding a French ban on chrysotile asbestos. 

Workers in the ship building and construction industries who installed friable asbestos insulation materials were severely affected by dust levels 100 to 200 times higher than those permitted by current standards. (Photos courtesy Canadian Asbestos Institute)
Canada's appeal tested the authority of WTO rules, which allow countries to restrict trade where necessary to protect human health or the environment. 
Despite the carcinogenic character of asbestos, Canada had claimed that France was not entitled to prohibit the import and marketing of certain asbestos products - in particular, chrysotile cement - because health risks could be substantially reduced if adequate precautions were taken. 

In November 1998, a WTO panel was asked to decide whether France's ban was in accordance with the provisions of multilateral trade agreements and fell within the scope of the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. 

Last September, four WTO arbitrators found that while the French decree was discriminatory and contrary to its obligations under international trade principles, it was not a technical regulation and so could not fall foul of rules on technical barriers to trade. 

Ninety percent of the world production of chrysotile is used in the manufacture of chrysotile cement, in the form of pipes, sheets and shingles. 
The panel decided that the ban was legitimate because WTO rules allow countries to restrict trade where necessary to protect human health or the environment. A month later, Canada appealed this decision on the grounds that the panel had ruled outside of its mandate. 
Today's ruling issued in a report by the WTO's Appellate Body in Geneva upholds the panel's decision that the dangers posed by the professional or accidental manipulation of asbestos justify strict measures, including a ban. 

In a landmark finding, the Appellate Body said that health considerations must be taken into account when interpreting anti-discrimination rules, and products entailing health risks cannot be compared with safer substitutes. Governments can therefore treat dangerous substances differently, said the Appellate Body. 

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral found naturally in nearly two thirds of the Earth's crust. It was long used in construction and manufacturing because it is incombustible, durable, versatile and resistant to chemicals. 

But when asbestos fibers are inhaled, they cause cancer, which is why potent classes of the mineral, called amphiboles, are no longer used. 

Canada's Natural Resources Minister, Ralph Goodale. (Photo courtesy Ministry of Natural Resources) 
They can cause asbestosis (serious scarring of the lung), lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung's lining. Asbestos induced diseases can take as long as 20 years to develop. 
Canada contends that chrysotile, sometimes called white asbestos, can be used safely in products such as building materials, brake linings, and water and sewer pipes. Integral to safe use is a cement or resin matrix which encases chrysotile asbestos fibers stopping them from dispersing into the environment. 

Canada calls itself a global leader in the sustainable development of natural resources, and claims its safe use principle has solid scientific backing. 

It is the world's leading exporter and second largest producer of chrysotile after Russia. Canada produced some 320,000 tonnes in 1998, accounting for 18.2 percent of global output and 2,500 jobs in Quebec where asbestos is mined. 

In December 1996, France decided that the health hazards posed by the professional or accidental manipulation of asbestos and asbestos products warranted a ban on all forms of the substance. 

The ban covers the production, transformation, sale, importation and marketing of asbestos and asbestos products, with certain exceptions for applications where safer substitutes do no exist. 

European Union Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy. (Photo courtesy European Commission) 
Prior to the ban, France was Europe's biggest importer of chrysotile from Canada. 
Responding to today's decision by the WTO's Appellate Body, Canada's Natural Resources Minister, Ralph Goodale repeated that Canada does not dispute a country's right to protect public health. 

"In Canada, we achieve the same health protection objectives through our policy of controlled use of certain specific applications of chrysotile asbestos," said Goodale. 

"Canada's policy of safe use is well founded because it has a sound scientific basis and is a responsible approach." 

Canada's International Trade Minister, Pierre Pettigrew said he was disappointed by the ruling, but pleased that it clarified certain legal principles. The country's interest in the case extends well beyond chrysotile asbestos. It is one of the world's leading producers of minerals and metals, such as aluminum, copper, nickel and zinc. 

The European Union, which took up the French cause when Canada began dispute settlement proceedings at the WTO in May 1998, welcomed the ruling. 

Canada's International Trade Minister, Pierre Pettigrew. (Photo courtesy Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) 
"This ruling shows that the WTO is responsive to our citizens concerns," said European Union Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy. 
"Legitimate health issues can be put above pure trade concerns. The ruling confirms that regulators can set the desired level of protection of health." 

The 15 member European Union banned five out of six types of asbestos in 1991, and the use of the remaining type - chrysotile - was allowed only in specific cases. 

In July 1999, the European Commission imposed a complete ban on chrysotile, which must be implemented across Europe by January 2005. The only exception to the ban is the use of chrysotile in diaphragms, which are used for electrolysis in certain chlorine plants. 

They are the only current use of chrysotile asbestos for which it is not technically possible to substitute without creating a safety problem. 

Peter Anderson
4513 Vernon Blvd. Suite 15
Madison, WI 53705
(608) 231-1100/Fax (608) 233-0011

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