Quebec's asbestos industry is keeping a close eye on a major meeting in Italy that got underway Monday to discuss whether the substance it mines will be listed as hazardous by the international community.

The week-long Rotterdam Convention in Rome is looking at whether three substances, including the chrysotile form of asbestos, should be added to the United Nations-backed treaty listing the world's most dangerous substances.

While Canada was once a significant world supplier of the fibrous mineral once known as "white gold," only two mines still remain in the country.

The Jeffrey mine located by the southeastern Quebec town of Asbestos employs about 275 people, while the Black Lake mine near the community of Thetford Mines, about 100 kilometres away, has about 400 workers.

The Rotterdam Convention doesn't ban trade in hazardous substances, but requires exporting countries to notify importing governments of the presence of such substances in products so they can give informed consent on accepting the dangers.

During the last round of talks in 2006, Canada was the only Western democracy opposed to adding chrysotile to the list and turned to Iran and Zimbabwe to support its position.

Foreign Affairs officials have refused to state what position the federal government plans to take during the week-long meeting.

Representatives from about 120 countries are expected to be present at the Rome gathering, and opposition is expected against the inclusion of chrysotile on the list, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has said.

Medical journal denounces asbestos trade

Last week, an editorial published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal likened the federal government's support for exporting asbestos to developing countries to the deadly arms trade.

"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."

The government-funded Chrysotile Institute says chrysotile asbestos differs from the carcinogenic amphibole type in that it doesn't crumble and its fibres are encased in cement or resin to prevent the release of deadly fibres into the atmosphere.

Health Canada says chrysotile is generally accepted as less potent and less damaging to the lungs than amphiboles.

Proponents of adding chrysotile to the list say Canada may be able to control domestic use of the substance, but can't do the same in developing countries where lax standards may be in place.

Asbestos has been banned by nearly every developed country, as well as a growing number of developing nations.

The UN says chrysotile asbestos, widely used in building materials, accounted for about 94 per cent of global asbestos production and is considered a carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

At least 90,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, the UN said.

With files from the Canadian Press