Quebec's controversial asbestos industry is being taken to task in a new article published in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet.

The article accuses Canada of hypocrisy for imposing a de facto ban on the cancer-causing substance and refusing to expose its own citizens to it, but still exporting it to developing countries.

Canada is still a major exporter of chrysotile, or white asbestos. It's the world's fourth biggest exporter (behind Russia, Kazakhstan, and Brazil), shipping about 150,000 tonnes per year to developing countries such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which have little or no protection for workers who handle it.

The report, written by the Lancet's Tony Kirby, notes that Canada is facing intense criticism from the World Health Organization, Canadian Medical Association and other groups for continuing to support asbestos exports.

The article comes as the Quebec government prepares to offer a $58-million guaranteed loan to an international consortium that plans to reopen the Jeffrey Mine, in Asbestos, Que., which would produce 225,000 tonnes of asbestos a year for export to Asia.

The consortium that wants to reopen the mine, led by Montreal-based financier Baljit Chadha, says all the asbestos would be sent abroad, with about half of it going to India. It says that chrysotile can be mined and manufactured into products in an entirely safe manner and that it will only be sold to foreign manufacturers with responsible use practices in place.

The Ministry of Natural Resources says it believe the risks from white asbestos can be managed.

"Canada's policy of controlled use has a sound scientific basis and is a responsible approach," Paul Duchesne, a spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, said in an emailed statement to the Associated Press.

"Through the enforcement of appropriate regulations to rigorously control exposure to (white asbestos), the health risks associated with processes and products can be reduced to acceptable levels," he said.

The Canadian Medical Association criticized the government's position on asbestos in a statement released at the same time as the Lancet article.

"If the government of Canada recognizes that it is essential to regulate the use of asbestos for Canadians, why does it allow the export of this product to countries that lack the resources to protect their own citizens?" CMA president Jeff Turnbull wondered in the statement.

Lancet Editor Dr. Richard Horton said the governments of Québec and Canada should be setting an example to other asbestos-exporting nations by declaring the practice of exporting asbestos to developing nations no longer acceptable.

"The Lancet adds its voice to those of the many anti-asbestos campaigners worldwide, the Canadian Medical Association, and others, who are calling for an end to this immoral export of asbestos-related death and disease to some of the most vulnerable people in the world," he said.

"We call on the Government of Québec not to back re-development of the Jeffrey Mine which would continue asbestos exports for another 25 years. Like WHO, The Lancet will be happy to see asbestos phased out of use of in all parts of the world."

Asbestos was a popular construction material throughout the 20th century because of its good tensile strength and resistance to damage. It has many uses including strengthening cement, prolonging the life of road surfaces, and as an insulation material.

But evidence has emerged in recent decades that when asbestos fibres are inhaled in significant quantities, they can cause scarring of the lungs, mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity, and lung cancer.

Once the link between asbestos and lung disease was proven, many high-income countries began phasing out its use and removing it from buildings. Yet the WHO estimates that about 125 million people worldwide remain exposed to asbestos in the workplace.

About one in every three deaths from occupational cancer is estimated to be caused by asbestos.