drying room of asbestos ore reclaimed from the dumps

drying room of asbestos ore reclaimed from the dumps

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Darlington Musarurwa – Business Editor

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EVERY other two years, when the Conference of Parties (COP) to the Rotterdam Convention — an international grouping of countries that are determined to control the trade and use of hazardous chemicals and pesticides — meets, the livelihoods and hope of more than 385 000 people who depend on chrysotile asbestos hang by a thread.

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This week the seventh COP gets underway in Geneva, Switzerland and the most vocal anti-asbestos lobby group, Rotterdam Convention Alliance (ROCA), has already stated its intention to lobby members to list chrysotile asbestos under Annex III of the Convention.

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The Zimbabwean delegation in Geneva includes Turnall’s managing director Mr Caleb Musonza; Shabane Mashava (SMM) chief executive officer Mr Chirandu Dhlembeu and National Chrysotile Taskforce members.

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It is the fifth time that chrysotile asbestos is being brought before COP.

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In essence, chemicals and pesticides that are listed under Annex III are subjected to more restrictions in international trade, which essentially makes their trade laborious.

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Countries like Zimbabwe, Russia and India are opposed to this listing of chrysotile asbestos and consider Annex III as a blacklist that is naturally a precursor to a de facto ban.

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Asbestos mining and processing remains big business for Zimbabwe.

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The two chrysotile asbestos producing mines of Shabane in Zvishavane and Gaths in Mashava, which have an annual production capacity in excess of 140 000 tonnes, used to employ more than 5 000 workers directly and more than 20 000 people indirectly.

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The local chrysotile manufacturing industries, which take in an estimated 10 percent of the product produced at the two mines, had more than 1 500 workers on their payroll at peak.

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Similarly, the off-shoots from chrysotile manufacturing account for about 60 000 families, while the construction industry that uses asbestos cement products in housing, water reticulation, sanitation and irrigation accounts for almost 300 000 people benefiting from chrysotile use, according to the Zimbabwe Chrysotile Asbestos Position Paper.

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But as discussions open this week, there is renewed effort from anti-chrysotile lobbyists to ensure that the fibre is blacklisted. Though decisions at the COP are made by consensus, there is a push to amend the Rules of Procedure, especially Rule 45 (paragraph 1), to ensure that binding decisions are made by a two-thirds majority vote.

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About 154 countries, including Zimbabwe, have since ratified the Convention.

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Last week, ROCA urged member countries to support the Chemical Review Committe (CRC) — made up of 32 government-appointed scientific experts mandated by the Convention to determine whether a specific substance meets the scientific and technical criteria — by approving its recommendation to list chrysotile and four other substances under Annex III.

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“ROCA calls on all Parties to the Convention to act with integrity and support the recommendation of the Chemical Review Committee for COP7 to approve the listing of the following five substances in Annex III: methamidophos; fenthion (ultra low volume(ULV) formulations at or above 640 g active ingredient/L); trichlorfon; liquid formulations (emulsifiable concentrate and soluble concentrate) containing paraquat dichloride at or above 276 g/L, corresponding to paraquation at or above 200 g/L; chrysotile asbestos.

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“ROCA calls on all Parties to the Convention to encourage parties to support the removal of the square brackets from Rule 45, Paragraph 1 of the Rules of Procedure, thus allowing a decision to be taken by a two-thirds majority vote, as a last resort, if all efforts to reach consensus have been exhausted, so that a handful of countries, acting in bad faith, may not hold the rest of the world hostage and prevent the implementation of the Convention,” said the Canadian-based civil society group.

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However, civil society groups can only attend the COP as observers. They cannot vote.

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Many European countries, particularly those that have suffered the devastating effects of the Amphibole group of asbestos (crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite and ampthophylite), which have been proven to have carcinogenic potency in both humans and animals, are spooked by any form of asbestos.

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Carcinogenic diseases are those that have the potential to cause cancer, and Amphibole asbestos has mainly been associated with a rare type of cancer called mesothelioma.

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In 2000 there was a row between a group of 3 000 South African asbestos poisoning victims and British multinational company Cape Plc over a multibillion rand compensation case.

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Cape Plc is being sued for more than 100 billion rand, or US$10 billion, by victims.

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However, the Serpentine group, of which chrysotile mined in Zimbabwe is a subtype, has been scientifically proven to have significantly lower risk of causing ill-health in human beings if used properly.

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Studies that have been conducted by Government through the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) have proved that the Threshold Limit Value (TLV) obtaining in local factories was significantly lower than those recommonded internationally.

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“In summary, with the current control measures in the Zimbabwean Chrysotile asbestos industry the risk of developing asbestos-related disease is indeed very low. With further and continual improvements in the field of OSH (Occupational Safety and Health), we have belief that the risk of exposure and concomitant disease can become statistically insignificant.. .

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“To date, there has been no scientific research study pointing towards a statistically significant risk of asbestos-related disease as a result of non-occupational exposure. Chrysotile in its inert form, such as that found in asbestos roof sheets, poses no statistically significant risk to inhabitants. There is ample scientific evidence to validate this fact,” says the Zimbabwe Chrysotile Asbestos Position Paper.

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Zimbabwe has ratified and domesticated the International Labour Organisation (ILO)Convention number 162 as well as adopting the Code of Practice on Safety in the Use of Asbestos.

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Recently, it ratified the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade and domestication of the same is already underway.

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Most importantly, the ILO acknowledges that there is scope to safely use and produce some forms of asbestos such as chrysotile.

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It emphasises on the importance of the controlled-use approach as opposed to the blanket ban on asbestos.

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There is however a tendency among lobbyists to deceptively lump the two distinct types of asbestos under a single term.

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The local industry has suffered as a result.

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Despite a group of South African parliamentarians visiting Zimbabwe in 2000 to gain first-hand knowledge about the industry, the South African government, through the then Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, decided to ban the use, manufacture and processing of asbestos on March 28 March 2008 .

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Zimbabwe used to export 10 000 tonnes of asbestos to South Africa annually.

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Mozambique followed suit on August 24 2010, depriving the country of another key market.

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It is believed that the bad publicity generated by the debate has played a part in discouraging meaningful suitors from courting Shabane Mashava Mine, which remains closed.

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Turnall, which makes asbestos-based building and piping products, is also struggling.

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Recently, the company reported that exports had dropped from 24 percent of total sales in 2008 to 6,1 percent in 2009.

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In 2014, exports contributed only 2,7 percent to sales, down from 4 peercent a year earlier.

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On the overall, Turnall’s revenue for the year ended December 2014 declined to US$33,8 million from US$42,3 million a year ago.

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The company has had to invest in a non-asbestos plant in Bulawayo that was commissioned in 2011 in order to reclaim its market share.