By Aaron Freeman

Late last week, with the backdrop of a new critical care unit an Ottawa hospital, Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched a Chemicals Management Plan to deal with some of the most harmful substances in our environment.

The plan is an important first step in addressing Canada’s environmental deficit. 

Canada has been falling far behind other countries in dealing with toxic substances.  A recent survey of OECD countries found that Canada ranked among the bottom three industrialized countries in regulating air emissions of substances such as mercury, nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxide, and ozone-depleting chemicals. And the United States and Europe have passed tight restrictions on a range of other chemicals that Canada has been slow to move on.

Why has Canada fallen fall so far behind on the environment? Broadly, you can chalk it up to a lack of political will. While other countries have put in place strong regulations to control the most serious pollutants, Canada has opted for lame incentive schemes and ineffective voluntary measures. 

This changed on Friday.  One of the most important elements of the Conservatives plan is that it doesnt shy away from the “r” word:  regulation.

The plan will take action on the so-called “new PCBs,” a series of chemicals that are highly persistent and bioacumulative. In other words, they don’t break down easily in our environment, and they accumulate toward dangerous levels. Two of the most serious substances, flame retardants and stain repellant chemicals, will be regulated within two years. 
These substances were among those found in both adults and children in recent nationwide blood tests conducted by Environmental Defence earlier this year. In several cases, children had higher levels of the chemicals than their parents.

Canada’s overarching pollution law, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) is sicker than some of the patients Prime Minister Harper visited in the critical care unit before the announcement. In theory, CEPA should be placing the most serious pollutants on a list for “virtual elimination.” In practice, in the seven years that this provision has been in the law, not one substance made it on to the list. The Conservatives’ new plan will place the first substance, a carcinogen known as hexachlorobutadiene, on the list

Perhaps most importantly, the plan deals with the outcome of a process that Health Canada and Environment Canada recently completed to prioritize 23,000 chemicals in the market. This exercise clearly identified which chemicals pose the most serious harm. The problem is that there is no legal requirement for the government to do anything about these chemicals. Under the new plan, for 200 of the substances near the top of the list, industry will have to show the government that it is properly managing these substances. If they cannot do so within six months, regulatory action will follow. 

The plan comes with funding: $300 million over four years. Also, a new “biomonitoring” program will be set up to monitor toxic chemicals in Canadians’ blood, similar to the program being carried out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The Chemicals Management Plan should be seen as a welcome first step, as Canada still has a great deal of catching up to do in this area. Two parliamentary committees are entering the final stages of the CEPA review. While the recent plan takes action on specific and important chemicals, the law must be strengthened to ensure that action is taken not only on the substances in last week’s announcement, but systematically, as we learn more about other potentially harmful chemicals. 

Indeed, even as the Canadian government begins to bring itself up to the standards of other countries, many of those countries are pulling further ahead. In the coming weeks, Europe will be bringing in a new chemicals management law, called Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH). Under this legislation, the burden of proof is placed on industry to prove the safety of a chemical before it can be introduced to the market. 

Europe is the largest chemicals market in the world. There is no decent reason why Canada should not harmonize with them in this regard. 
In addition, while the chemicals plan deals with many substances found in consumer products, Canada’s overall regulatory system is poorly equipped to deal with the many hazardous substances found in everyday items including electronic devices, clothing and carpets. CEPA should be strengthened to deal with toxins in such products. 

CEPA needs mandatory action timelines, so that chemical assessment reports don’t simply gather dust on the shelves of Environment Canada and Health Canada. And it must include provisions for dealing with pollution hot spots, like the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, where 45 percent of Canada’s toxic air pollution is generated.
By announcing a plan to deal with many of the most harmful toxic chemicals, the Conservatives have ventured where the Liberals refused to tread. Let’s hope the government follows through on this plan by modernizing CEPA to systematically protect both the environment and human health.
– Aaron Freeman is the Policy Director for Environmental Defence. The opinions expressed are his own.