EU committee votes to ban white asbestos

Chrysotile prohibition adds new dimension to Canadian complaint against France

The EU is to ban the only type of asbestos which is still allowed in the Union, following a vote by member state officials yesterday. Thirteen out of 15 countries voted to ban white asbestos - or chrysotile - satisfying the need for a qualified majority. The ban will be introduced under a directive yet to be drafted, which will require member states to ban white asbestos by 2005.

The decision will bring EU rules on white asbestos into line with existing bans on blue and brown asbestos in force since 1991, and follows a recommendation from an official scientific committee (ENDS Daily 23 September 1998). All types can cause fatal lung diseases such as cancer and most EU countries have already unilaterally imposed restrictions on white asbestos or are in the process of doing so. Only Spain, Portugal and Greece still have no plans to restrict the substance, according to a European Commission spokesperson.

There will be one main exemption from the ban: white asbestos will still be allowed for electrolysis in chlorine plants where no alternative exists. It will also still be allowed in research.

The decision to create an EU-wide ban throws into question the future of a trade dispute currently under way between France and Canada. Canada is pursuing legal action against France at the World Trade Organisation level, claiming France's ban on white asbestos - in place since the start of 1997 - breaks international free trade rules. Canada singled out France because it was one of the main European markets for Canadian chrysotile, used in products such as brake linings, gaskets, seals for industrial plant, asbestos cement and in textiles products such as asbestos gloves.

Claude Demers, a spokesman for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, told ENDS Daily that the process against France would continue. "We believe the ban in France, and the one proposed by the EU, is not based on sound science and was taken on strictly political grounds. We believe our position will prevail in the end," he said. Canada had still to decide whether or not to extend the action to the rest of the EU, he added.

A panel of three world trade experts was appointed to examine the case at the end of March and they have until the end of the year at the latest to file their report.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111.

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