Toxic chemicals aren’t just a concern for the environment, they also pose a threat to human health. In recent years, there has been a lot of attention drawn to carcinogens and endocrine disrupting chemicals (chemicals that mimic our natural hormones) in common household items.
Some companies have moved to take toxic chemicals out of products, and the federal government is reviewing the safety of others under the auspices of its Chemicals Management Plan. However, given there are over 80,000 chemicals in use, progress has been very slow.
Conducting research into chemical safety, human health endpoints, and citizen exposure to thousands of substances, is a complex task. It is therefore, understandable that banning or restricting harmful chemicals takes time. But when it is widely agreed upon by scientists and regulators that a chemical is persistent, toxic, bioaccumulative, and that safer alternatives exist, immediate action should be taken to remove said chemical from the marketplace, to prevent further exposure.
Yet recent examples highlight that swifter action is needed at the federal level for endocrine disruptors such as triclosan. Triclosan was declared by the federal government to be toxic to the environment in 2012, yet it remains in household items Canadians buy and use every day. As a result it is polluting waterways, getting into our bodies and likely harming our health. The evidence for the latter is growing and since 2012, new research has indicated that triclosan may be linked to breast cancer cell growth. Additional studies have added to the growing evidence that the chemical disrupts human hormones, and may affect heart muscle function.
While more progress is needed to remove triclosan and other harmful chemicals from the marketplace, the current phase of the federal Chemicals Management Plan is set to end in 2016, and funding for the next phase has yet to be announced.
In contrast, the recently-elected Ontario government made election platform commitments to take action to protect people and the environment from toxic chemicals, and is considering new regulations that would improve disclosure regarding toxics in household goods.
The Ontario government passed the Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA) in 2009. This Act is meant to encourage businesses to substitute toxic chemicals with safer alternatives, and to track toxic pollution in the province of Ontario. In a response to a pre-election survey, Premier Wynne said that her government would consider enacting a regulation under the TURA that would require disclosure when products contain a substance deemed toxic. This move would be similar to California’s Proposition 65, which requires that products have a warning label if they contain a substance known to cause cancer or birth defects. This new information encourages manufacturers to remove harmful substances, because informed consumers will move to select non-toxic alternatives.
This and other ‘Right to Know’ measures, such as disclosure of pollution releases at industrial sites, are broadly supported by an increasingly educated public that has demonstrated a willingness to switch its purchase behaviour if it is given the information needed.
Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada, and anything that can be done to help prevent the horrible disease is a step in the right direction. Swifter action to remove carcinogens and other harmful substances from the marketplace is needed from the federal government, but a provincial move to allow consumers be informed about the potentially carcinogens contents of products will give people choice. The bigger question is: what’s stopping a ban on harmful chemicals like triclosan at the federal level?