Canada Appeals WTO Trade Restriction on Asbestos

By Neville Judd

MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada, September 19, 2000 (ENS) - The World Trade Organization's decision to uphold a French ban on chrysotile asbestos has infuriated the Canadian government, anxious to protect a C$200 million a year business.


Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale. (Photo courtesy Natural Resources Canada)
International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew and Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale announced Tuesday that Canada will appeal the WTO panel's decision on the basis that the international trade organization acted outside of its mandate.

The appeal will test the authority of the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules which allow countries to restrict trade where necessary to protect human health or the environment.

"The panel's mandate was to determine whether France's ban on asbestos was in accordance with the provisions of the multilateral trade agreements," read a joint statement issued by the two Canadian ministers. "Its mandate did not include ruling on the safety of the applications, or on the principle of safe use of chrysotile asbestos."

Canada 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.

Prior to its ban in 1996, France was Europe's biggest importer of chrysotile from Canada.

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.


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. (Photo courtesy Canadian Asbestos Institute)
Not all asbestos is alike, and 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.

The 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.

The 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.

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.

"That decision doesn't belong to the panel, period," Canadian Department of International Trade and Foreign Affairs spokesman Francois Lasalle told ENS. "It is not within the panel's mandate so we will appeal to the WTO to have its decision overturned."


Ninety percent of the world production of chrysotile is used in the manufacture of chrysotile-cement, in the form of pipes, sheets and shingles. (Photo courtesy Canadian Asbestos Institute)
Lasalle said that if WTO appeal guidelines are followed, that appeal could be heard and ruled on by December or January.

"Having a WTO panel rule outside of its mandate on the safety of products is not something we want to see again. The French approach is excessive - that's all there is to it," Lasalle said.

In their joint statement, Pettigrew and Goodale said the appeal procedure should enable Canada to clarify the scope of the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade.

"Canada is in no way calling into question a country's right to adopt regulations in the public interest, or to set appropriate levels of protection for public health reasons," said the ministers, adding "the safe use approach is sufficient to ensure the health and safety of workers and the public.

"In Canada, as well as in other countries, the use of chrysotile asbestos is strictly regulated."

Canada'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.


Roof shingles are among products developed from chrysotile which are used in about 60 industrialized and developing countries. (Photo courtesy Canadian Asbestos Institute)
Although this fight is only between Canada and France, the WTO's decision has wider implications because the 15 member European Union (EU) supports the French ban.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, has proposed a ban on all forms of asbestos and wants to see chrysotile outlawed by 2005. It says that no safe, non-carcinogenic level of exposure has been scientifically established.

Five EU member states - Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland and Luxembourg - still permit import and use of chrysotile.

Prior to its ban in 1996, France was Europe's biggest importer of chrysotile from Canada, importing 30,000 metric tonnes in 1995. Canadian chrysotile exports totalled 509,575 tonnes in 1995.