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  • Hamza King

The Global Asbestos Trade - Eradicating toxic markets

The asbestos trade has continued for decades despite governments banning its use around 40 years ago, after knowledge of its toxicity became more common. Unfortunately, laws regulating asbestos vary nationally, as there is contention over the degree of harm caused by different types of asbestos. This urges us to consider how we might eradicate toxic markets (those which trade in harmful products) and not merely restrict them to locations where their ramifications can be ignored. Prohibitionists place faith in legislative measures, which disincentivise participation in toxic markets; in contrast, libertarians consider prohibition to be futile, arguing that laissez-faire policy is the only viable option. However, neither of these approaches fully captures what is necessary for the eradication of the global asbestos trade, which poses both legal and ethical problems for the United Kingdom (UK). Legal problems require legal solutions, but if we are to address the ethical problems, long-term, non-legal solutions are required.

The UK has used three types of asbestos in manufacturing, which decrease in toxicity respectively: blue (Crocidolite), brown (Amosite), and white (Chrysotile). In 1985, the UK banned the use of Crocidolite and Amosite, and in November 1999 Chrysotile was also banned. Brazil and Canada have recently prohibited the mining, manufacturing and trade of Chrysotile, following the example of many developed countries; however, the United States of America (USA) continues to use it. The global asbestos market has been kept alive by developing countries, such as Russia and China, which continue to mine, manufacture and trade Chrysotile (which constitutes 95% of asbestos use worldwide). This disparity in national laws has allowed companies operating out of countries where asbestos is prohibited, to continue profiting from the international sale of asbestos. An issue the international community has sought to address in recent years.

It has been estimated that one person dies for ‘every 20 tons of asbestos’ produced globally; the world produces approximately 2 million tons of asbestos annually. The Rotterdam Convention has attempted to regulate this market, by requiring ‘Prior Informed Consent’ on the sale of hazardous substances and prohibiting the trade of Crocidolite and Amosite. In 2015 members of the convention voted to ban Chrysotile, but this required unanimity and seven states voted against it (many of whom were exporters). So why has the international community struggled to eradicate this market, despite evidence that Chrysotile is a toxic product?

The answer, in short, is doubt. A ‘science of doubt’ to be more specific, one created by the asbestos industry to obfuscate the harms of Chrysotile. The phrase ‘science of doubt’ describes how an industry influences literature, by sponsoring academics to publish and publicise work supporting their interests. The tobacco industry infamously did this to create doubt about the harms of smoking. Similarly, the asbestos industry has done this to create doubt about the harms of Chrysotile. Toxic markets are often sustained by a ‘science of doubt’, particularly when they have an international scope. International politics requires cross-country consensus building, which a ‘science of doubt’ complicates. This contributes to the inertia we witness all too often in international politics, due to the interests of countries conflicting with one another. The responsibility for regulating toxic markets therefore falls onto national governments.

The Times recently published an article titled: ‘Revealed: the Scottish links to the asbestos trade’. It identified four UK companies – CJ Petrow & Co, Astrade Solutions Limited Partnership (LP), Minerals Global Trading LLP and Worldwide Cargo Logistics Solutions LLP – which have profited millions from distributing Chrysotile. To avoid criticism, these companies utilise their LP status which allows accounts, ownership and taxes to be concealed. Unfortunately, even after being exposed none of these firms have been sanctioned, as there is currently no law prohibiting UK companies from participating in this toxic market. When companies are condemned, they have not one but two alibis: their actions are not illegal domestically, nor are they prohibited under international law by the Rotterdam Convention.

Acquiescing in the trade of Chrysotile by UK companies creates both legal and ethical problems. From a legal position, we set a dangerous precedent which defines our future trading relations; by tolerating this trade now, we open the floodgates to all sorts of questionable trade in the future. From an ethical position, this toxic market disproportionately harms the world’s poorest, who are often uninformed about Chrysotile’s toxicity. To build a more egalitarian world, the global asbestos market must be eradicated and not merely restricted.

After Brexit new trade deals will need to be forged. Lizzy Buchan of The Independent has raised concerns about a post-Brexit trade deal with the USA, where Chrysotile is still used openly. She describes how Brexit may result in the UK lowering its health and safety standards to allow for trade in Chrysotile. No one is quite sure what our post-Brexit trade relations will look like. And in this period of uncertainty, the question of how we trade globally is salient. Especially how, or if, we trade in a product that is prohibited in the UK, on the grounds that it causes ‘a number of serious diseases’.

Brexit signifies a turning-point in our trading history. And as we prepare to discard old laws, new laws must be developed to replace them. Lawyer Harminder Bains has proposed that we enact legislation prohibiting UK companies from participating in the global asbestos market. In addition, MP Martin Docherty-Hughes has criticised legislation that affords LPs such secrecy and has called for legal action to make them more transparent. These propositions would set a precedent on the sale of Chrysotile internationally, therefore addressing the legal problem. However, as laws evolve those who wish to circumvent them will evolve too and other legal loopholes will be identified. For this reason, the ethical problem must be addressed in order to eradicate the global asbestos market for good.

Prohibition has been met with recalcitrance throughout our history, as libertarians observe, although it is also instrumental in the eradication of a toxic market. The resilience of the global asbestos market portrays how prohibition alone does not prevent markets from operating. Rather, it leaves a void often filled by self-interested companies or individuals, who continue to participate in the market provided its product is still perceived to be valuable and in demand. This can be seen through the behaviour of the companies described in The Times article. Prohibition is only the first step to eradication, a step often over-valued.

Devaluation is the second step necessary for the eradication of a toxic market, which may take different forms depending on the type of product. For over a decade, academic literature has described how safer ‘substitutes for asbestos exist, and [that] they have been introduced successfully in many nations’, such as polymeric and cellulose fibres. It is concerning that these alternatives are not a popular choice in countries where asbestos is still used, as their popularisation would eventually reduce demand for asbestos itself. Encouraging a switch to alternatives reduces the value of asbestos and as the value of a product diminishes the demand for that product also diminishes.

Experience teaches that unless prohibition coincides with measures to devalue a toxic product, it only restricts and pushes the toxic market underground. This is where efforts to eradicate the global asbestos market have fallen short. Fortunately, the existence of alternatives makes the eradication of the asbestos market attainable. But this is reliant on two equally important steps: first, legislation must continue to restrict the market to disincentivise participation and set a trading precedent; second, asbestos alternatives must be incentivised and popularised to reduce demand for asbestos itself. It is the second step which requires greater attention if we wish to create a safer world for all. A world without asbestos will be a world where asbestos is no longer valuable. As only when something is valueless will the markets around it collapse entirely.