Regulating toxic chemicals

“Canada’s New Government improves protection against hazardous chemicals” says the press release. This item fits in the “ounce of prevention” file, but is also another one for the “opportunistic Harper government” file.On prevention, Canada has been slowly getting its act together with regard to the growing evidence that thousands of untested and unregulated chemicals in the environment are connected with astonishingly high incidences of cancer. The Canadian Cancer Society reports that two in five Canadians will get cancer in their lifetimes, and one in four will die from it.

On opportunism, it is notable that this initiative was underway before the Harper government came to power, and is anchored in the 1999 update of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. But given that the previous Environment Minister was Stephane Dion, it is hard to see how Harper can get away with claiming credit. Still, it is good news that the Tories are planning to move forward on toxics, although that movement is heavily exaggerated. The government’s press release states:

“The Chemicals Management Plan we are unveiling today will make Canada a world leader in assessing and regulating chemicals that are used in thousands of industrial and consumer products,” said the Prime Minister. “It includes realistic and enforceable measures that will improve our environment and protect the health and safety of Canadians.”

“Since 1994, new chemicals have not been manufactured in Canada or imported here without undergoing a scientific risk assessment,” Minister Ambrose explained. “Now that same rigorous assessment will be applied to ‘legacy chemicals’ that were introduced between January 1, 1984, and December 31, 1986.”

“Canada was the first country to complete categorization of 23,000 legacy chemicals last September,” added Minister Clement. “It will be the first, now, to take action. We have established clear priorities and now we are taking action to protect the health of Canadians.”

“Moving forward, we will improve product labelling programs as well as deal with imported products which use chemical substances that are prohibited here in Canada,” Minister Clement indicated.

“Chemicals Management Plan” sure sounds good, and the Tories get it that the public wants real regulation, but few specifics that might constitute a “plan” are provided. There is, however, a new government website, called Chemical Substances. But after probing the site for details, I fail to see what is new about this “plan”. I suppose a press release that stated “government creates website” just would not be as catchy.

The site reviews what has been done and where this process is heading, and it is much less exciting that the government’s press release:

More than 23,000 chemical substances were in use in Canada between January 1, 1984 and December 31, 1986, when the original [Canadian Environmental Protection Act] was being created. The law calls these “existing substances,” and they are registered on the Domestic Substances List (DSL).

CEPA 1999 set a goal for the Government of Canada to sort through or “categorize” all 23,000 chemical substances. This task was completed by September 2006, as required by the Act.

Using information from Canadian industry, academic research and other countries, Government of Canada scientists worked with partners in applying a set of rigorous tools to the 23,000 chemical substances on the DSL. They were categorized to identify those that were:

  • inherently toxic to humans or to the environment and that might be:
    • persistent (take a very long time to break down), and/or
    • bioaccumulative (collect in living organisms and end up in the food chain)
  • substances to which people might have greatest potential for exposure.

Many industrialized countries around the world are undertaking a similar process. Most, however, focus only on chemicals that are used on a very large scale. In 2006, Canada became the first to complete categorization. There were approximately 4,000 chemical substances identified as needing further attention.

Categorization is the first step in scientifically assessing chemical substances on the DSL. The chemical substances identified as needing a more thorough examination have also been sorted to ensure those with the greatest potential for concern are examined first.

… Categorization has added a great deal to what we know. This information will be helpful in the future. Before categorization was finished, we had knowledge on a small set of chemical substances. Now, we have a baseline of important information for all chemical substances to help guide decisions for years to come. Information from categorization will be available to everyone in Canada, including those who need to assess risks and make decisions about managing and using chemical substances.

If you are still awake, you will note that the so-called “Plan” is merely a restatement of the status quo of doing tests and reviews of these 4,000 chemicals, all of which will take a decade or more to complete. Ho hum.

In contrast, the health and environmental problems arising from these chemicals are huge. Martin Mittelstaedt of the Globe has covered this story a lot in recent years. His latest piece from the other day comes as part of the Globe’s series on cancer, ‘Pesticides are what is killing our kids’.


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  • Western Montana is directly downwind of potato fields and wheat fields where pesticides are often sprayed in states west of Montana. Cancer in all ages is very common here in people and animals. Grazing animals, such as deer, elk, antelope and domestic herbivores have an alarmingly high rate of underdeveloped skull and upper jaw resulting in underbite. Many species of herbivore have a high rate of malformed genitalia on males. These problems began in spring of 1995 after a huge increase in use of fungicides, especially Chlorothalonil and Vinclolozin. Chlorothalonil was found in tests of snow water, pine needles and deer fat all from here in Western Montana. Chlorothalonil turns into Cyanide (nitriles) in the body of animals that injest it or breath it, likely why large herbivores that eat tons of foliage with Chlorothalonil on it are most affected. Young of test animals given nitriles had up to 72% with malformations, especially bone and reproductive malformations. Young birds here also often have underbite, usually causing them to die after fledging because they can not get enough food.

    What are people planning to eat after the pesticides kill all of the herbivores? Does anyone care. Are we going to have to live on pesticide laden french fries? Why are potatoes more important than the lives of humans, especially children?

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