The Canadian government continues to promote exports of asbestos to developing countries, a position likened to arms trading in an editorial published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

"Canada's government seems to have calculated that it is better for the country's asbestos industry to do business under the radar like arms traders, regardless of the deadly consequences," the editorial in Monday's online issue concluded. It is the first time the journal has denounced the federal government's stance on asbestos.

"What clearer indication could there be that the government knows what it is doing is shameful and wrong?"

The editorial "Asbestos mortality: a Canadian export" appears ahead of talks that start next week in Rome on governing trade in substances harmful to human health and environment. A proposed addition to the treaty would add the chrysotile form of asbestos to the world's list of most dangerous substances

The Rotterdam Convention does not ban trade in hazardous substances, but it would require Canada to notify the importing government before chrysotile asbestos is shipped, so the importing country can give informed consent on accepting the dangers.

No western democracy supports Canada's position, so in the last round of talks in 2006, Canada turned to Iran, and Zimbabwe as allies.

In May, two internationally recognized experts who contributed to a Health Canada review on the cancer risks of asbestos appealed to the federal minister of Health to make their report public.

"I want to make the record clear that nothing in the report would argue against the sensibility of an asbestos ban in Canada or for that matter anywhere else in the world," Leslie Stayner, head of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois, told CBC at the time.

Health Minister Tony Clement's office has said that the report will be made public once his officials have reviewed it. The CMAJ said its sources said the blockage is in the prime minister's office.

A page from tobacco's playbook

In response to a petition requesting information of Canada's policies on chrysotile asbestos, in March 2007, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay responded: "The Government of Canada recognized that all forms of asbestos fibres, including chrysotile, are carcinogenic."

But to date, Canada has argued that "chrysotile is a less potent carcinogen" that poses a lower health risk — an argument "redolent of the tobacco industry's playbook on light cigarettes," the editorial's authors said.

The Canadian government believes asbestos is safe if handled properly and has spent nearly $20 million in the past two decades to promote exports of the mineral, almost all of it going to developing nations such as India, Indonesia and Pakistan for use in construction material.

"For Canada to export asbestos to poor countries that lack the capacity to use it safely is inexplicable," said the editorial, which called Canada "an avid asbestos cheerleader."

"But to descend several steps further to suppress the results of an expert committee, pour millions of dollars into an institute that shills for the industry and oppose even the Rotterdam Convention's simple rule of politeness is inexcusable."

One of the world's foremost experts on asbestos-related disease, McGill University's Dr. Bruce Case, said chrysotile is safer than other forms of the mineral, but he agreed that Canada should be a leader in saying it is hazardous.

"We have absolutely no control over what countries like India do with the asbestos once it's exported to them," said Case.

Asbestos has been banned by nearly every developed country, as well as a growing number of developing nations. The World Health Organization has estimated as many as 100,000 preventable deaths occur worldwide each year, mainly from asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma and lung cancer.

The editorial was written on behalf of the journal's editorial team by Dr. Amir Attaran, David Boyd and Dr. Matthew Stanbrook.