Union workers demand ban on all forms of asbestos at upcoming UN meeting

Union workers demand  ban on all forms of asbestos  at upcoming UN meeting

KARACHI: Trade union activists and workers from asbestos industries, including the ship breaking industry, have expressed their grave concerns over the use of asbestos in their local industries. They demanded the government of Pakistan to institute a mechanism for an immediate and urgent ban on all forms of asbestos in the country, along with the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance at the upcoming Rotterdam convention to be held from 2nd May in Geneva.

Addressing a press conference on Friday, trade unionists said that in the previous conference held in 2015, Pakistan had sided along with a few countries - including Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Kyrghyzstan, and Zimbabwe - to oppose the listing of Chrysotile asbestos in the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list. They stated that adding a substance to this list does not mean that the substance is banned, but only ensures that the importing country receives all the information regarding the risks posed.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was introduced in the past for its versatility as it was considered a material that has heat resistance, tensile strength and insulating properties. It was used for fire-proof vests and also in the home and in commercial constructions by being woven into fabric and mixed with cement.

There are around six naturally occurring fibrous minerals of asbestos including chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite,tremolite, and actinolite. Among these, chrysotile and amosite asbestos are the most common but equally cause serious health problems including cancer to the public in general and workers specifically. All over the world trade unions and human rights organizations have been campaigning against the use of asbestos.

"The UN Convention on the ban of Asbestos will be held in Rotterdam, Netherlands in the month of May this year where a serious discussion will be held in which all stakeholders, including governments, will participate. In South Asia, India and Pakistan are against the ban of this hazardous substance," stated Nasir Mansoor, Deputy General Secretary of the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), adding that while the entire world is progressively moving towards banning Asbestos, in striking contrast Pakistan has been increasing imports of the deadly Chrysotile Asbestos. "We urge the Pakistan Government not to turn a blind eye towards the long-term hazards related to Asbestos usage and exposure" he cautioned.

During the press conference, Muhammad RafiqBaloch, President NTUF, BashirMehmoodani, President ShipbreakingMazdoor Union Gadani, Riaz AbbasiAltas Group companies Worker Union, said that considering the public health disaster caused by Chryotile Asbestos, 55 countries have banned any use of asbestos. Although there is some mining of asbestos fibers in the country, a large quantity is imported from countries like Russia, Brazil, and Kazakhstan. As per data obtained from the USGS, Pakistan imported over 2800 MT of asbestos fibers in 2015.

"Between 2009 and 2012, more than 35000 tones of fibers were brought in. This vast amount of fiber which will eventually be placed in the homes of a large number of people, will lead to an epidemic of diseases caused due to asbestos," they said.

They stated that there are no statistics or data regarding the number of workers suffering from Asbestos-related disorders. The main reason for this is the absence of trained doctors. There is no systematic monitoring and reporting of asbestos related diseases (ARD) in Pakistan. The government should make serious efforts to begin a survey for it.

"In the ship-breaking industry, cement producing, pipe manufacturing units, and construction sites are main sites where workers are the most exposed to the hazardous substance," they added.

They demanded the government of Pakistan to enable the listing of Chrysotile asbestos in the UN hazardous substances list in the upcoming Conference in May 2017, so that trading countries have prior knowledge about the health implications of Chrysotile asbestos before choosing to import it.

They also called on the government to, "undertake a survey of all workers (current and former) of factories and mines using asbestos fibres to comprehensively identify victims of asbestos related diseases".