The World's Would-Be Regulator


When it comes to the selective use of scientific data to come up with unscientific policies, Europe is a world leader. A growing danger for the global economy is that the EU is trying to get the world to follow its lead on important regulatory matters.

The latest case concerns asbestos. Amphibole asbestos, one of the two broad types of the naturally occurring substance, has been generally regarded as a carcinogen and widely banned for three decades now. But only the European Union and a dozen or so other countries have banned the other type of asbestos, chrysotile. Also known as white asbestos,chrysotile remains a $600 million-a-year industry that thrives especially in Russia, China, Canada and Brazil.

That could change soon. At a five-day conference beginning tomorrow in Lyon, the U.N.’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) will review a study of various synthetic chrysotile substitutes to determine whether they are safer than the real thing. In making such a comparison, one might expect the new information on the synthetics to be weighed alongside the most up-to-date data available on chrysotile itself. Yet under IARC’s mandate for the study, handed down by the World Health Organization, no new analysis of chrysotile was ordered.

IARC officials told us that the WHO’s «latest» study of chrysotile — nearly a decade old now — should suffice. Industry advocates say they have new scientific evidence that chrysotile doesn’t remain in the lungs to cause cancerous mesothelioma, as amphibole asbestos does, because it is structurally different. However, they’ve been given only 15 minutes to make their case — and at any rate, IARC says, the panel convened for this week’s conference isn’t necessarily qualified to examine chrysotile more closely.

Aside from the obvious gap in the scientific discovery process taking place here, the potential economic ramifications are enormous. Should IARC decide this week that the substitutes pose less of a risk to human health and the environment than chrysotile, it could be added to the list of substances that, under the 1998 Rotterdam Convention, can be shipped internationally only with the «prior and informed consent» (PIC) of the exporting and importing nations.

This is where the EU comes into play: People familiar with the matter say Brussels was pushing especially hard for chrysotile to be added to Rotterdam’s PIC list but was rebuffed in part because there was little available information about the substitutes. The WHO’s mandate appears tailored precisely to remove that obstacle.

It’s unclear why Europe is so interested in seeing chrysotile wiped out beyond its own borders — in other words, in forcing its regulatory standard on the rest of the world. What is certain is that anti-asbestos sentiment is rising up in Europe even though all forms of it already are banned. The «Brussels Declaration,» adopted in September at the European Asbestos Conference, calls for «mandatory asbestos audits of public buildings by 2007 and domestic residences by 2008.» Whether the building owner or the taxpayer ends up paying for these audits — and any asbestos removal that is subsequently required — the only people bound to be happy about this prospect are those in the asbestos-removal business.

We’ve heard a presentation about the new study of chrysotile, and while we’re not scientists it certainly seems solid enough to merit a thorough examination before an entire industry is effectively KO’ed. Some will no doubt say that an industry’s research to prove the safety of its own product can’t be trusted. Fair enough. But a narrow study designed by those determined to see that product banned can’t be viewed any differently.

At the very least, the chrysotile industry’s new data should be used to decide whether a new, neutral evaluation ought to be conducted. Or do European and international bureaucrats only use their cherished «precautionary principle» to guard against hearing information that might change their predetermined outcome?