There are a lot of international trade talks happening these days, and different regulations and how they affect business are a big topic of conversation. Unfortunately, sometimes the demand to harmonize regulations to minimize impacts on trade can be a threat to measures governments have already taken to protect human health and the environment.

The Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC) is a relatively new collaborative effort being undertaken by Canada and the U.S. in order to achieve greater regulatory alignment. Prime Minister Harper and President Obama announced the Action Plan in December 2011.

It remains to be seen what impact this may have on Canadian environmental regulations, but many aspects of the project deserve more attention and discussion.

The RCC covers four main sectors: agriculture and food, transportation, health and personal care products, and the environment. This week, stakeholder meetings will take place in Washington D.C. about how the RCC will impact the ways these sectors currently operate and I will be there to participate.

There could be a positive side to this: Increased sharing and collaboration between Canadian and U.S. scientists would have the potential to help address critical data gaps regarding the health effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals, the cumulative and additive effects of exposures to multiple chemicals, and the effects of low level chemical exposures. There are over 80,000 chemicals in commerce in North America. More scientific research is urgently needed to determine where our safety is at stake, and international cooperation in this effort can have a positive impact.

On the flip side, while efforts to increase data gathering and to support scientific collaboration are worthy of public support, the Canadian and U.S. laws that govern how policymakers respond to new research have significant differences, and in some areas, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (1999) (CEPA) can lead to stronger protections where harmful chemicals are concerned.

A key difference between CEPA (the enabling legislation for much of the Chemicals Management Plan), and the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (1976) (TSCA), is that the precautionary principle is enshrined in law as a “guiding principle” of CEPA. Also, the Chemicals Management Plan is in the process of reviewing 4,300 substances with regards to human and environmental risks, and determining how to manage those risks.

In contrast, TSCA, which is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been controversial. The EPA has only required testing for 200 chemicals for human safety, and has banned  only five, though other chemicals have their uses  restricted. For this reason, many states have initiated their own legislation and management regarding toxics.

Considering the differences between CEPA and TSCA, a cautious approach is needed to ensure that the RCC will result in improvements, rather than damage, to the Canadian system of addressing potentially hazardous chemicals.

The RCC is still in the early stages of investigating the potential for regulatory alignment in key areas, including chemical regulations and scientific collaboration. Environmental Defence will be watching closely as the RCC moves forward in creating recommendations regarding Canadian and U.S. chemical regulations and scientific collaboration. For more information, read our media backgrounder and sign-up for our toxics newsletter for all the latest updates.