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Moving Canada off the toxic treadmill of key chemicals laws

Growers and foresters need research, knowledge and support — while Canada culls the pesticides portfolio

By Meg Sears, Chair, Prevent Cancer Now · Republished with permission from the Hill Times.
Related: Ask your politicians to modernize laws protecting human and environmental health.

One month into 2022, scientists worldwide are calling for rapid transformation to counter chemicals and waste over-running the Earth’s systems, worsening climate chaos and mass extinctions.

Closer to home, pollution contributes to the chronic diseases that predispose people to severe COVID-19. Pollution prevention and reduction are key for public health, and a vital public policy challenge for Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos. For decades, researchers have repeatedly demonstrated potential benefits of pollution prevention to Canadians, with potential savings of billions of dollars in healthcare, disaster response, and lost opportunities for those affected.

Pollution prevention and reduction are key for public health, and a vital public policy challenge for Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos. (Photo: Erich Westendarp, Pixabay)

Cue amendments of Canada’s two major laws addressing pollution, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA) covering most chemicals as well as other issues, and the Pest Control Products Act, 2002 (PCPA) for pesticides. These substances underlie the substantial burden of disease from environmental risk factors.

Proposed CEPA amendments were lauded a year ago, with The Right to a Healthy Environment in the preamble of Bill C-28. Parliamentarians heard little more of the Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act, until the election inspired promises of re-introduction. Recent droughts, fires, heat domes, crop failures, floods and Arctic blasts suggest that The Right to a Healthy Environment is a tall order.

Reducing and preventing pollution is a key challenge for Environment Minister Stephen Guilbeault (pictured) and Health Minister Jean Yves-Duclos. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

As for pesticides, plans to amend the PCPA were announced prior to the election, consequent to public uproar over proposed increased glyphosate levels in food.

In contrast with North America, the European Union aims to reduce use by 50 per cent, by 2030, claiming that organic, regenerative agriculture is essential for health, resilience, biodiversity, water retention, carbon capture, soil preservation, and farm and food security. Indeed, Canadian climate-related low crop yields and failures, mould contamination and flooding damage tend to spare organic produce. With hundreds of pesticides in thousands of products, strategies are offered to wean off some of these chemicals. Growers and foresters need research, knowledge and support while Canada culls the pesticides portfolio.

CEPA and the PCPA share shortcomings

We can’t manage what we don’t measure. The PCPA requires chemicals data once large quantities are already in commerce and we are already exposed. Pesticide sales reports are vague. For example, glyphosate has been in a unique, highest-use category defined as more than 25 million kilograms used annually, nationally, since reporting was initiated. What was used where? We don’t know. The Canadian Health Measures Survey, tracking chemicals in Canadians, has never measured glyphosate in Canadians’ blood or urine, while billions are being paid to cancer victims in the U.S.

Chemicals regulatory data could eventually be linked to national health data, with the Pan-Canadian Health Data Strategy for early detection of potential harms.

Independent science should prevail over today’s focus on confidential industry data.

Modern scientific methods could predict toxic effects, including late effects of early exposures.

Decision-points such as “acceptable risk” (acceptable to whom?) need revisiting. Chemicals are generally assumed benign until long-term research confirms that effects are “established” and “adverse.” With a multitude of chemicals, these thresholds can be elusive, and are not ethical, aligned with the Precautionary Principle, nor protective of health.

The Precautionary Principle—taking action even in the absence of full scientific certainty—has been refined internationally to consider essentiality (how essential is a product or function such as being stain resistant?) and substitution (best options to achieve what is actually needed). Details include substitution of hazardous substances such as the SIN List and a “climate lens” addressing life cycle emissions and waste.

Regulating groups or classes of chemicals. Canada remains on a toxic treadmill of restricting single substances while allowing industries to replace them with similar products. For example, the recent Canadian Health Measures Survey reports lower levels of bisphenol-A and select phthalates (problematic chemicals in plastics), without assessing numerous similar substitutes permitted in today’s products.

If Canadian regulators are going to dismount from their toxic treadmill and protect human health and ecosystems, the Trudeau government and its newly minted Environment and Health Ministers must set out ambitious reforms for CEPA and the PCPA. Aligning Canada’s agriculture and manufacturing with progressive regions such as the European Union would boost trade with improved environmental profile of Canadian products.

Meg Sears B.A.Sc., M.Eng., Ph.D. is trained in chemistry and chemical engineering, and works in environmental health. She is a senior research associate at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, and chairs the Canadian volunteer group Prevent Cancer Now.