Quebec is finding itself at the centre of a world debate this week over the production and export of asbestos, with a prestigious medical journal taking on the government and a delegation from Asia arriving to urge support for a ban on the product.
The Quebec government is poised to offer a $58-million guaranteed loan to an international consortium that plans to reopen the Jeffrey Mine, located in Asbestos, Que., that would produce 225,000 tonnes of asbestos a year for export to Asia.
"There are few safety standards in these countries to handle what the entire medical community considers to be a dangerous carcinogen," said Oman George, an occupational health worker from India who is part of the delegation.
"Canada finds asbestos too dangerous to use but it [wants]to export it to developing countries. That's like telling everyone that Canadian lives are more important than those in India, Indonesia, and everywhere else where the asbestos mined in Quebec will be exported."
The delegation will receive little support from Quebec's main political parties. The Parti Québécois is divided on the issue and refused to give support to the delegation following a meeting on Wednesday. On Thursday the group will meet with Minister of Economic Development Clément Gignac, who supports reopening the Jeffrey Mine in order to create more than 400 jobs in the community.
The Lancet, one of the world's most prestigious medical journals, published a new report Thursday detailing intense criticism Canada is facing from the World Health Organization, Canadian Medical Association and a host of other groups for continuing to support the export of asbestos to developing countries.
"We know this is a hazardous substance and the evidence of this is overwhelming," Jeffrey Turnbull, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said in an interview. "I think we have to speak out and we could encourage a ban [on exportation of asbestos]"
The Lancet report also singles out the federal government for funding an asbestos lobby group, which promotes the use of the cancer-causing material internationally.
Asbestos was once commonly used in everything from insulation to hairdryers before serious health concerns began to emerge in the 1960s.
Jeffrey Mine is currently under bankruptcy protection and the only other asbestos mine in Canada, the LAB Chrysotile Mine, also based in Quebec, will be exhausted in the near future.
Guy Versailles, spokesman for the consortium looking to reopen Jeffrey Mine, said there are new ways to handle the type of asbestos found in the mine which reduces the risk of health problems. He added the group is committed to auditing companies that buy asbestos to ensure they are using it responsibly and safely.
Mr. Versailles, and others who support Canada's asbestos industry, refer to their product only as "chrysotile" and say it no longer causes health problems in this country.
But chrysotile has always been the most commonly used type of asbestos and can cause cancer and lung disease, according to a litany of medical organizations and advocates calling for its exportation to end.
"This is showdown time for Quebec, for Canada and the global asbestos industry," said Kathleen Ruff, former director of the B.C. Human Rights Commission and liaison for the delegation from Asia.