By Aaron Freeman
Despite the upsurge in public concern for environmental and health issues, Canada has one of the Western World’s most outdated systems for controlling toxic chemicals in consumer products.
Passed in 1968, the Hazardous Products Act was scarcely talked about in recent months when lead was found in alarming levels in children’s toys, or, when chemicals that pose developmental risks for children were found in plastic baby bottles. Yet this law is the preferred legal tool for dealing with toxins in consumer goods.
It’s easy to see why few wanted to talk about what the federal government could do under the act. Unlike Europe and the United States, Canada doesn’t even have the power to issue a mandatory recall of a product. The government is restricted to asking companies nicely, or issuing often invisible warnings to consumers. These voluntary measures usually follow more decisive action that has already been taken in other countries.
In the United States, if a company is made aware of a hazard in one of its products, there is a legal requirement to notify the government. Companies in Canada have no such obligation.
Fines in Canada are in the range of $5,000—barely representing petty cash for major manufacturers and importers. U.S. fines for similar infractions are $1-million, and in Europe, fines can be up to five per cent of a company’s revenues.
The government’s new Consumer Product Safety Act, announced last week, would fill many of these regulatory gaps, giving the government the power to issue recalls and raising fines to a maximum of $5-million. It would require manufacturers and importers to track important information about how and where their goods are produced, and report problems they are made aware of. And it would introduce a new general safety requirement, prohibiting the marketing of a product that is “a danger to human health or safety.”
The bill is a significant improvement to Canada’s antiquated regime for regulating toxic chemicals, but it could go much further in protecting human health.
While it introduces a range of new tools, there is no requirement for the government to actually use these tools. In a properly functioning public health protection system, when a problem comes to light with a product on the market, there should be an obligation on the government to inform consumers and to remove or restrict the product. Under the new law, government may do this, but there is nothing to require them to. Think about it—if the government is made aware of a toxic chemical in a children’s toy, there would be no legal requirement for them to even make people aware of it. Sure, there would be political consequences if the government is found to have been sitting on the information, but this after-the-fact accountability relies on the government and industry getting caught.
Similarly, the minister would have the power to order companies to conduct studies to ensure that a product is safe, but nothing in the proposed law will ensure that products are regularly tested for toxicity.
Perhaps most importantly, the law provides little new information for consumers on potentially toxic product ingredients. In Europe, as well as U.S. states such as California and Vermont, manufacturers must label products if they contain toxic ingredients like carcinogens or endocrine disruptors. For many products in Canada, it is impossible to know what’s inside even if you know what you’re looking for. Some industries voluntarily disclose some ingredients in their products, but such voluntary schemes are notoriously ineffective, providing only partial coverage of the market, and lacking independent monitoring. They are invariably introduced as a way of heading off more effective government regulation.
Canada needs a new law to deal with the threats posed by harmful chemicals in consumer products. The current one, written before the summer of love, just doesn’t cut it.
The Conservatives’ new bill is long overdue. Parliament should strengthen it further and pass it before the next election. It seems we only get this chance once every four decades.
Aaron Freeman is the policy director for Environmental Defence. The opinions expressed are his own.
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