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Pacific island countries vote to ban asbestos

History was made in Apia last week with the endorsement of a proposal to work with Pacific islands on restricting or banning asbestos.

The proposal, championed by Cook Islands and co-sponsored by Tonga and Australia, was endorsed by representatives of the 21 Pacific island and five metropolitan members of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) at its Twenty-eighth Meeting of Officials.

Speaking on behalf of Cook Islands, Director of the Cook Islands National Environment Service, Joseph Brider, expressed delight at the positive outcome:

“The Cook Islands is extremely pleased with the decision of the SPREP Meeting. We believe that it reaffirms that the Pacific islands are truly united in our shared stewardship of the region and our commitment towards a sustainable future.”

The proposal was co-sponsored by Tonga and Australia, and received strong support from the majority of SPREP Member countries and territories.

Paula Ma'u, Chief Executive Officer of Tonga's Ministry of Meteorology, Energy, Information, Disaster Management, Environment, Climate Change and Communications, said that the move to ban asbestos in the Pacific is particularly important given the repeated failure of the Rotterdam Convention to reach consensus on the listing of chrysotile asbestos on Annex III of the Convention:

“Tonga is very pleased to have been able to co-sponsor the proposal from Cook Islands for a Pacific regional ban on asbestos. Planning the details of the ban will be important as it will need to allow for the importation of asbestos waste for disposal, as some Pacific islands have limited capacity to safely dispose of legacy asbestos stockpiles.”

Information about the extent of asbestos in the Pacific region was very limited until the European Union-funded PacWaste project undertook a Pacific regional asbestos baseline survey in 2014.

PacWaste is a €7.85 million (US$9.36 million) project funded by the European Union and implemented by SPREP to improve regional hazardous waste management across the Pacific.

The survey found more than 187,000 square metres of confirmed non-residential asbestos across 11 Pacific island countries, 78% of which was classified as either high or moderate risk. The survey also found evidence of new asbestos containing building materials being imported into the region.

At last year's SPREP Meeting of Officials in Niue, SPREP and PacWaste sought support for a similar ban on asbestos. While the proposal received strong support there was apprehension from Members as to how the implementation of such a ban would be resourced.

SPREP's Director General,Kosi Latu, explains that these concerns around resourcing, capacity, and monitoring for a Pacific-wide asbestos ban have since been alleviated, thanks partly to the announcement of new funding from the European Union for a follow-up project called PacWaste Plus:

“This direction from our members to work with them on banning or restricting the importation, re-use and re-sale of products and wastes containing abestos through PacWaste Plus, will make great inroads into ensuring the safety of future generations from the harmful effects of asbestos.”

Head of Cooperation at the European Union Delegation for the Pacific, Christoph Wagner, noted the leadership shown by Pacific island countries to progress with the Pacific-wide ban:

“We welcome this decision from Pacific Island nations to work towards joining 59 other countries, including all member states of the European Union, to ban asbestos. It's a fantastic outcome for the health and wellbeing of communities across the Pacific region, and a pleasing endorsement of the work undertaken through PacWaste and planned for PacWaste Plus,” he said.

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