OTTAWA – The Commons environment committee is calling for major changes to the environmental protection act, and biomonitoring programs to measure toxic chemicals in the bodies of Canadians.
In a rare unanimous report Wednesday, the all-party committee slammed the lack of information about the toxicity of chemicals used in Canada and Canadians’ exposure to them.
“Nowhere is the information gap more evident than with respect to the quantities and trends in body-burden of synthetic chemicals,” says the report.
The committee also recommends a return to regular state-of-the-environment reports which were introduced by former prime minister Brian Mulroney but subsequently abandoned.
Witnesses told the committee that Canada is unusual among developed countries in lacking systematic biomonitoring programs to track contaminant trends through the study of blood and urine samples.
Environmental Defence and Pollution Watch, non-government groups, recently conducted small biomonitoring studies, one of which found that a number of prominent politicians were carrying chemical cocktails in their veins.
Health Canada recently announced a one-time biomonitoring study of 5,000 people but the committee says that’s not good enough.
“Studies such as this must be ongoing to establish trends in the body-burden of Canadians.”
The committee’s report, based on months of hearings involving 70 witnesses, makes 31 recommendations to strengthen the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, a complex federal bill which is intended to regulate toxic chemicals.
When the act was introduced in the late 1980s it was hailed as world-leading legislation, but critics say it has proven largely ineffective.
For example, the bill requires the virtual elimination of proven toxic chemicals. But in its history, only one chemical has been designated for elimination, and that product was no longer being used anyway.
Similarly, the bill provides heavy maximum penalties for polluters, including jail terms, but those have never been applied.
Critics say the act has been hobbled by the scientific difficulty of screening tens of thousands of chemicals and proving toxicity beyond doubt.
The committee proposes that the onus be shifted to manufacturers to prove the products are safe.
The law should state “that industry has the responsibility of demonstrating, to the satisfaction of the minister, that the risks of new and existing substances of concern are acceptable.”
Aaron Freeman, policy director at Environmental Defence, welcomed the proposed revisions, saying he hopes they will be implemented by the government.
“It’s encouraging to see such multipartisan support for strengthening Canada’s national pollution law,” he said.
In a development that would have been startling a year ago, Conservatives on the committee supported inclusion of greenhouse gases as “toxic substances” listed under the act. When they were in opposition they fiercely opposed that move.
Other recommended changes would make it easier for citizens to legally challenge the marketing and use of toxic chemicals, even before there is evidence of damage to health or the environment. Those who make a complaint that is upheld by the courts would be entitled a share of the fine imposed on the polluter.
At a news conference, Chairman Bob Mills and members of all parties praised the collegiality of the committee, which overcame partisan differences to produce a unanimous report.
© Canadian Press