Illustration by Raymond Biesinger
For an issue that touches all of us, exposure to toxic chemicals garners too little attention in the public and political realms. Despite the laws and regulations that exist to protect human health and the environment, people across the country are continuously exposed to cancer-causing and endocrine- or hormone-disrupting chemicals—in the products we use and the polluted air and waters we consume each day. The federal government enacted the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) in 1999, in part to enshrine stronger protections from toxic chemical exposures, but it is severely outdated and badly in need of a refresh.
Thankfully, that was also the verdict of a parliamentary committee tasked with reviewing the act and proposing ways to improve Canada’s toxics regulations. In its final report, tabled in Parliament before the summer break, the committee makes 78 recommendations that offer the federal government a critical roadmap for fixing CEPA’s flaws, several of which are discussed here. Many of these recommendations, if accepted, would ultimately save lives, protect vulnerable populations, improve ecosystem health and save money. Whether or not the government adopts them may depend on vocal support by the public.
Synthetic chemicals play a big role in our lives—as ingredients in personal care products, pharmaceuticals, household cleaners, renovation and building materials, and the solvents that dry cleaners douse our clothes in. While these chemicals may have made our lives more convenient and affordable, the consequential health and environmental problems, if unintended, have been severe.
Scientific research over the past several decades has consistently proven that toxic exposures are contributing to ever-increasing rates of chronic illnesses, including cancer and endocrine-disruption-induced reproductive or neurodevelopmental deficiencies. In 2010, the U.S. President’s Cancer Panel stated that the impacts of environmentally induced cancer are “grossly underestimated.”
The top four most common cancers affecting Canadians, according to a 2017 Canadian Cancer Society report, are lung, breast, colorectal and prostate cancer—all of which are linked to environmental exposures to carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Furthermore, the Endocrine Disruptor Exchange, an American research institute established by Theo Colborn (who is regarded as the founder of the scientific field of endocrine disruption), has identified nearly 1,400 chemicals as potential endocrine disruptors.
In an era of rapid climate change and habitat destruction, the release of toxics into the environment through wastewater effluent and air emissions has put biodiversity and wildlife at greater risk.
Toxic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), now largely banned, were once extensively used as coolant fluids in electrical power equipment and for insulation in paints and plastics. Even today, PCBs can be detected in the vast majority of humans and wildlife. Worrying levels of the chemical were recently detected in Lulu, the killer whale washed ashore in the northern U.K.—the highest levels of PCBs ever detected in an animal, in fact. This is because many toxics are persistent pollutants that do not break down and remain in the environment for decades or even centuries after commercial uses end.
There are over 85,000 synthetic chemicals in commerce today. Governments, academics and industry have studied and understood the effects of merely a fraction of them. In Canada, CEPA 1999 governs the conditions and rules for assessing and managing the potential risks of chemicals. The legislation requires the government to screen and categorize chemicals according to their suspected hazard profile, their potential for release, and resulting exposures.
CEPA also authorizes the creation of regulations that would prohibit, restrict or label toxic chemicals. Chemicals found to be “toxic” due to a certain level of risk posed to human health or the environment can be added to the list of toxic substances under CEPA’s Schedule 1. The government is then required to manage the risks of substances on the list within a prescribed timeline.
Since the vast majority of synthetic chemicals in commerce before CEPA 1999 was enacted were not tested for safety, CEPA enabled and required the government to sift through a backlog of chemical risk assessments that were not performed before being put on the market . Over the past decade, out of 4,300 chemicals prioritized by the Chemicals Management Plan, a joint program run by Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada, over 2,700 chemical risk assessments were completed, and the remaining are on track to be completed by the planned 2020 deadline.
While this is an important and impressive accomplishment, the results of the program underscore the limitations of Canada’s approach to chemicals regulation. Many of the chemicals assessed so far (138 of them) have been legally recognized as “toxic” to human health or the environment, yet they remain on the market—in toothpastes, deodorants and shampoos, for example, products that people use on a daily basis.
This apparent contradiction occurs because CEPA takes a risk-based approach to assessing and managing chemicals, meaning that a chemical’s hazard profile on its own does not obligate action to ban or restrict its use. The release of the chemical, or exposure to it, must first be determined to be high enough in order to merit action. The resulting risk management strategy would correspond to the level of risk identified, often resulting in partial restrictions to reduce exposure in the population or the environment to a threshold or level that is deemed safe.
The risk-based system fails to take into account the current science on endocrine disruptors, which can negatively interfere with our development even at minute levels of exposure. This group of chemicals have defied the traditional concept of toxicology, where the dose determines the poison, making the risk-based approach inadequate to addressing potential harms.
To illustrate the failure of Canada’s chemicals management system to accommodate this information, we need only consider the bisphenol-A (BPA) ban.
Walk through any Canadian dollar store and you’ll quickly find a number of reusable plastic containers and bottles labelled BPA-free. The federal government banned the substance’s use in baby bottles in 2010 after an assessment concluded BPA was toxic to human health, sparking outrage from Canadian families. However, the endocrine-disrupting chemical is not actually banned in all plastic food and beverage packaging.
While the baby bottle ban was an important step, it has not fully protected babies, children or adults from BPA, which is still allowed in many products used daily by Canadians. Potentially toxic BPA alternatives, such as BPS and BPF, are also still allowed in products marketed as BPA-free. Plastic containers, the inner lining of most food cans, and even thermal cash register receipts, which have become a major source of exposure in cashiers and ticket handlers, are only a few examples of consumer products exposing us to BPA.
According to the 2015 Canadian Health Measures Survey, nine in 10 Canadians had detectable levels of BPA in their bodies. As an endocrine disruptor, exposure to very low doses of BPA during critical windows of vulnerability and development may wreak havoc inside of us.
For instance, exposure to BPA in fetuses (through the placenta) and in newborns (through breast milk, products and dust) may lead to serious reproductive system or brain development deficiencies including lower IQ levels and behavioural problems such as ADHD. Endocrine disruption by BPA has also been shown to contribute to hormone-related cancers later in life, including breast, prostate and thyroid cancers.
The BPA story also offers a good example of how Canada’s chemical management system fails to respond to emerging scientific evidence and international restrictions, contrary to the spirit of the legal guidelines set by CEPA. In France, BPA has been banned in all food-contact materials (e.g., reusable beverage and food containers), and will be banned from use in receipts in Europe in 2020.
Furthermore, the European Union chemicals regulatory system, known as REACH, recently added BPA to the candidate list of substances of very high concern as a reproductive toxicant and endocrine disruptor. It is likely that, by 2018, BPA will be fully banned in Europe—unless the industry can prove the substance is safe for specific uses. This more precautionary approach to regulation, commonly known as reversing the onus of proof, is arguably much stronger than the current risk-based approach in Canada.
BPA is just one of the more high-profile cases of where CEPA has been unsuccessful in protecting Canadians and the environment from toxics. Another noteworthy example relates to a group of toxic flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are used ubiquitously in furniture, electronics and textiles, and are known to be neurotoxic and persistent in the environment.
Canada recognized PBDEs as CEPA-toxic in 2006. But, due to the lax risk management timelines in the act, it took an entire decade for the government to finalize regulations to prohibit PBDEs. This prohibition does not even include imported consumer products which are the most common source of exposure.
In the case of triclosan, an antibacterial added to soaps and toothpastes, and recently banned in the United States, it took the Canadian government over four years to finalize the risk assessment after concluding that it is toxic to aquatic life. Even then the proposed approach to managing risks did not include a ban.
For many years, the Canadian public and environmental and health groups have asked for stronger protections from toxic chemicals. As the above examples illustrate, Canada’s toxics-limiting legislative tools are not satisfactorily eliminating the use of highly dangerous toxic substances that persist and accumulate in the environment.
Fortunately, several of the 87 recommendations for upgrading CEPA 1999, put forward this year by a standing committee on environment and sustainable development, would be major improvements. A number of the reforms have been endorsed by professional medical and health associations and include the following:
- Reversing the burden of proof on substances of very high concern, an approach that would require industry to prove the safety of using certain chemicals known to cause cancer or disrupt the endocrine system, among other outcomes.
- Enshrining legal guarantees to protect everyone, and in particular vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, children, Indigenous communities and low-income families, who bear most of the burden of exposure to toxic chemicals.
- Recognizing the right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment. This would be the first time that a Canadian law would legally protect this right and would add Canada to the list of over 100 countries that have already done so.
- Strengthening the requirements to ensure timely and comprehensive actions are taken when chemicals are found to be toxic.
- Requiring that the government explore safer alternatives to toxic chemicals, which would help eliminate toxics from use and also promote a growing and promising green chemistry market projected to be worth US$100 billion (CAD$127 billion) worldwide in 2020.
- Protecting the public’s right to know about the presence of toxics in consumer products through informative warning labels similar to those employed in Europe and certain American states including California.
- Substances found to be persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic would have to be eventually “virtually eliminated” from use in products and release into the environment.
The next step required to address this gaping hole in the protection of human health and the environment is for Canada’s health and environment ministers to announce they will work together to address these recommendations by amending and modernizing CEPA 1999. It will be important for the government to see strong public support for these reforms. If all goes well, we will all benefit from living in a cleaner and healthier country and economy.
Muhannad Malas is the program manager for Environmental Defence’s toxics program. After completing a master’s degree in public health policy at the University of Toronto, Muhannad helped develop and implement chronic disease prevention policies and environmental health frameworks for municipal and provincial governments.
This article was published in the September/October 2017 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.