By Aaron Freeman
 
The Conservatives are on the verge of releasing a new plan to address air pollution in Canada. While many fear that the plan will be either too weak, too limited in scope, or both, taking action on toxic pollution is long overdue.
 
Canada has fallen far behind other countries on protecting Canadians from harmful environmental chemicals. A recent study of OECD countries ranked Canada among the bottom three industrialized countries for controlling pollutants such as volatile organic compounds, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, ozone-depleting substances and greenhouse gasses.
 
It is a common myth that Canada has better environmental laws than the United States. A recent comparison between Canadian and U.S. industrial sites around the Great Lakes found that per facility, Canada emits 93 percent more cancer-causing air pollution, and almost four times the pollutants that cause reproductive or developmental harm. The U.S. has established mandatory legal standards for air emissions, while Canada relies on weak and ineffective voluntary guidelines. 
 
The United States has also banned several harmful chemicals. In 2000, for example, the U.S. banned perfluoro-octane sulfonate (PFOS), a chemical that is linked to brain and immune system damage, and is found in a wide range of products including oil and grease repellents in carpets, clothing, upholstery and food packaging. Canada only rarely undertakes such bans.
 
Over the summer, the government finally announced it would be considering actions to restrict PFOS in the coming years. But they have provided a very broad exemption for consumer products, where PFOS and many other potentially harmful substance are often found. 
 
Health Canada and Environment Canada recently completed a mammoth exercise, examining roughly 23,000 substances and categorizing them according to their health and environmental impact. This process was completed only because of a legal obligation under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) to prioritize these chemicals. It is supposed to lead the government to taking action on the most serious substances, but it remains unclear whether the government will be getting serious about removing the most harmful substances from circulation.
 
With the completion of the categorization process, Canada finally has something to point to that puts it ahead of some other countries. But putting toxic substances into categories means little if we don’t take action to protect Canadians from these substances.
 
To follow up the categorization process, the ministers of environment and health should immediately establish a binding timeline to take action on each of the 4,000 substances that this process has established as the most serious threats. 
 
The government should also place a priority on strengthening the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), which is currently being reviewed by parliamentary committees of both the House and the Senate. Environment Minister Rona Ambrose last week acknowledged to the House environment committee that there are significant weaknesses in CEPA. While the government should not pre-empt the committees’ work, there are a few reforms that are no-brainers, and that the government should commit to immediately.
 
First, the most valuable lesson of the categorization process is that governments complete their work most effectively when there is a legally required deadline. Because there are no timelines spelled out under CEPA for other important phases of the regulatory processes, health and environmental assessments often lead to nowhere and the government is able to delay taking action indefinitely. The government should place mandatory timelines on each stage of the chemicals management process, from assessment through to taking action to limit the damage from harmful substances.
 
Second, the government should clarify that CEPA is the default legislative tool for dealing with toxics in consumer products. Currently, these products are dealt with sparingly under the Hazardous Products Act or the Food and Drugs Act. These acts are very weak at dealing with health threats from consumer products containing toxics, and do not deal at all with threats to the environment posed by these products. 
 
Third, although CEPA supposedly takes an “ecosystem-based approach,” there are no provisions dealing with Canada’s most sensitive and important ecosystems, such as the Arctic and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin.
 
Finally, as emerging legislation in the European Union requires, a greater onus should be placed on industry to provide information about their substances before they enter the market, rather than the current burden on government to determine whether products are dangerous before putting in place precautionary measures. 
 
It is hard to put a price on the benefits of removing harmful chemicals from the marketplace. The Ontario Medical Association estimates that just two air pollutants (ground-level ozone and particulates) cost Ontario almost $1 billion a year in health and lost productivity costs. 
 
It is up to the federal government to make sure that Canadians aren’t left to pay this tab.
 
– Aaron Freeman is the new Policy Director for Environmental Defence. The opinions expressed are his own.