|Dark cloud hovers over asbestos, SMM revival in focus, Decision to determine future of asbestos trading|
|Sunday, 28 April 2013 00:00|
international meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, next week.
However, Government is confident that the campaign will falter as Zimbabwe, which will vote against the move, will for the first time attend the meeting — the 6th Conference of Parties (COP) of the Rotterdam Convention to be held from May 7 to May 10 — as party after having deposited instruments of ratification of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions, the globe’s three leading chemicals and waste treaties, effective May 30 last year.
In essence, the Rotterdam Convention is a legally binding instrument for the Prior Informed Consent procedure that came in force in February 2004 to control and administer the growth in international production and trade in chemicals in view of the public health risks posed by hazardous chemicals and pesticides.
Of late there has been a intense lobby against the trade and use in asbestos, especially chrysotile asbestos, as a “harmful substance” to human health that has culminated in the ban of asbestos in South Africa and Mozambique.
Turnall Holdings, which is the region’s biggest producer of roofing and piping materials made from asbestos fibre, has consequently suffered from dwindling regional sales of its product.
The company has had to change tact by acquiring new technologies to produce alternative products in order to recapture the market.
Through SMM, Zimbabwe used to be one of the world’s largest producers of top-grade chrysotile asbestos fibre, with an annual production capacity in excess of 140 000 tonnes produced at Shabanie Mine in Zvishavane and Gaths Mine in Mashava.
It also used to provide the lifeblood of the economy in the Midlands, employing more than 5 000 workers at its peak and indirectly supporting more than 20 000 people.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and chairperson of the National Chrysotile Taskforce Ms Abigail Shoniwa said last week despite the international lobby against chrysotile, the future of the industry in Zimbabwe is strong as local demand remains solid.
“Despite these international calls to list chrysotile on PIC, the future for the asbestos industry in Zimbabwe is still very bright since the local demand for the commodity is strong and that our major export markets still require the commodity.
“Zimbabwe still has the potential to be one of the world’s largest producers of chrysotile asbestos fibres and contribute immensely to employment generation and the downstream industries.
“The asbestos industry is strategic in terms of construction, building, water reticulation, irrigation, car manufacturing and other industrial applications in Zimbabwe,” said Ms Shoniwa.
She further noted that there could be some conspiracy by some influential groups to ban the fibre.
“There could be conspiracy by well-organised groups of activists which would want to see a blanket ban of asbestos based on past misuse and high exposures to mixtures of different asbestos fibre types such as the amphiboles.
“The total ban of asbestos would pave way for substitute fibres and alternative products which are too often unregulated and rarely scientifically proven safer and less harmful than chrysotile.
It is believed that the interest groups’ motivation to ban asbestos is informed by the belief that alternative fibres are more profitable and could help rake in a fortune.
However, the International Chrysotile Association (ICA) believes that if chrysotile asbestos is put on the PIC list, which is perceived as a black list, it will experience discrimination in international trade up to ban of import.
So, in order to impose a “de facto ban”, any country could just refuse to import a substance or to demand additional requirements for shipment of a substance (insurance, packing) which in reality will be very difficult to comply with.
It is also feared that such complications could inevitably lead to a ban of the product in other regional as well as international markets.
“These products when fibres are uncapsulated in a matrix and are not air borne do not present an unacceptable level of health risk to peoples. Replacement products are more expensive and do not permit the development of local industry.
“Further, it has not always been scientifically proven that replacement fibres, the uses of which are encouraged by international lobbies, are safer than chrysotile fibres,” said the ICA in a paper circulated before next week’s meeting.
The key issue regarding chrysotile and a motion to put it on the black list (PIC) was first discussed at the Rotterdam Convention Conference of Parties in Geneva in 2011, but the parties failed to reach consensus.
The issue will be dealt with again next week after three failed attempts (2006, 2008 and 2011).