The Canadian Cancer Society will announce as early as today that it endorses a ban on the export of asbestos and believes the federal government should stop blocking international efforts to curb the trade in the dangerous mineral.
Although asbestos is internationally recognized as one of the worst cancer-causing materials ever to have been in widespread use, the society's decision was controversial because it undermines Ottawa's long-standing contention asbestos can be used safely and should be promoted.
Most industrialized countries, including Canada, no longer use much asbestos because of health concerns and worries over legal liabilities.
But 95 per cent of Canada's production, from several mines in Quebec, is exported, virtually all of it to developing countries, where it is used to make cheap building materials.
Asian countries such as India, Indonesia and Thailand, are the major export markets for Canadian asbestos.
Substitutes for the mineral are readily available in virtually all of its uses.
The cancer society had initially considered an asbestos policy that would have largely backed the federal government's position that it can be safely used provided those importing it are informed of its health risks, according to a draft of the policy viewed by The Globe and Mail.
But the positions in the draft caused an outcry among occupational health groups and anti-cancer advocates, who argued the society would damage its credibility by accepting the government's stand.
In recognition that calling for a ban is politically sensitive, the society is expected to say instead that it believes the use of asbestos should be eliminated, which is tantamount to a call for a ban.
The World Health Organization estimates that 90,000 to 100,000 people around the world die annually from asbestos-related conditions, such as lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma and gastrointestinal cancers.
Health Canada, unlike health authorities in many other Western countries, does not keep national statistics on the domestic toll of asbestos-related diseases, but a paper issued last month in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health estimated there have been thousands of premature deaths in Ontario alone since 1980 from mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Despite the well-known health risks, the federal government has been a strong backer of asbestos.
It has spent about $19.2-million from 1984 to 2007, including regular funding of the Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute, to promote asbestos use.
Although many countries have banned asbestos, Canada continues to allow it in children's toys and building materials, among other products.
The cancer society will also recommend that the federal government stop trying to block efforts by the Rotterdam Convention, a UN-organized body, at its meeting in 2008, to place the variety of asbestos mined in Canada on the list of the world's most dangerous substances.
Last year, Canada, along with countries such as Iran and Russia, were instrumental in blocking the listing, which would have required countries buying asbestos to give their consent to imports before any shipments would be allowed.
The cancer society also wants communities and individuals affected by strategies to cut asbestos use to be given financial resources to help cope with the consequences of reduced use of the material.