The Rotterdam Convention is an international United Nations treaty that lists many hazardous, banned, or severely restricted substances. The Convention dictates the way that its member countries must handle trade in these hazardous substances and it seeks to facilitate informed decision-making.

Its goal is to empower countries to curb imports and production of toxic materials that they deem to be high risk. The main purpose of the Rotterdam Convention is to establish a prior informed consent procedure to ensure that nations are aware of any hazardous materials they may be importing and to stop other countries from exporting toxic substances to them that they don’t wish to receive.

How does it work? Simply put, if a country wants to export one of chemicals on the Rotterdam Convention list, it must make sure that the country receiving the import has consented to it.

Even if a substance is not on the list but it’s severely restricted, the importing country must be notified.

Why The U.S. Hasn’t Ratified the Rotterdam Convention

The Treaty was signed in 1998 and it took effect in 2004 when it was ratified by the appropriate number of signatory countries. To be clear, the United States has signed the treaty, but according to the U.S.

State Department, our nation as not yet ratified it because, “We currently lack the authority to implement all of its provisions.” While the Obama administration put pressure on Congress to ratify the Rotterdam Convention, it would require Senate approval and changes to major environmental laws that are tied up in federal public policy.

The Glaring Omission of Chrysotile Asbestos

The Rotterdam Convention covers substances such as DDT, mercury compounds, endosulfan (a pesticide), and five forms of asbestos, but one particularly controversial substance has eluded the treaty.

The member countries have yet to add chrysotile asbestos - also known as “white asbestos” - to the list of hazardous materials governed by the Rotterdam Convention. This is the most common form of asbestos and makes up 95% of asbestos found in the United States.

For years, chrysotile asbestos has evaded the Rotterdam Convention due to a few countries’ opposition to its inclusion on the list… usually in order to protect their own domestic exports.

Who’s Stopping its Inclusion?

At the 2011 Rotterdam Convention in Geneva, Canada surprised other members by refusing to add chrysotile asbestos to the list and Russia joined them with the same stance.

Yet again in 2015, Russia and Kazakhstan (who are together responsible for 80% of the world’s asbestos exports) along with Kyrgyzstan and Zimbabwe blocked the addition of the substance to the list. India is the largest importer of asbestos worldwide, and raised its objections as well, though Canada remained silent this time.

Many are outraged that chrysotile has yet to be included in a treaty which would merely require prior informed consent to its import.

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization urges the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in the Rotterdam Convention, stating,

“It is unconscionable to put business interests above public health and needlessly expose people to deadly asbestos without their knowledge.”

What this Failure Means

Because the convention has failed to include asbestos at the past several meetings, other countries must now increase efforts to pass national bans on the substance to keep it from crossing their borders.

While Russia and the other countries may believe blocking its inclusion from the Rotterdam Convention has preserved their asbestos export business, they’ve actually pushed other countries towards national ban decisions.

The United States, however, participates only as an observer at meetings of the Rotterdam Convention and though they supported the inclusion of chrysotile in 2015, they have yet to ratify the treaty or pass their own national ban on the asbestos.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that, according to Brian Kohler, an official at IndustriALL Global Union,

“The failure to list chrysotile asbestos means millions of exposed workers will stay ignorant of its deadly dangers.”

The Rotterdam Convention will meet next in 2017 and discuss the issue… again.