We are celebrating because we are finally able to welcome the proposed update of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) – it’s been over 20 years since it was amended or modernized. Bill S-5, also known as the Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Act, replaces Bill C-28, which was introduced last spring, but died on the order paper when the federal election was called. The new Bill brings with it some important changes to CEPA that will better protect our health and the environment from toxic chemicals – and it gives us a chance to push for further amendments to make the Bill even stronger. 

CEPA is the legislation that helps us protect the environment and human health. When we want to take action to get toxics out of products, such as getting BPA out of baby bottles or receipts, regulating climate-changing greenhouse gases, or banning single-use plastics – it’s done under CEPA. Improving this Act can address the hazardous exposures that affect us all and do more to protect low-income, racialized and Indigenous communities disproportionately impacted by environmental toxins and the effects of climate change.

These are a few key changes that the government is proposing in this Bill: 

Environmental rights: Environmental rights are being introduced for the first time in Canadian law, and if a few amendments can be secured this inclusion could represent an important step towards enshrining broader citizen rights to a healthy environment, and enhancing the rights that exist in some provincial legislation. 

Vulnerability and susceptibility: Our current system tends to prohibit toxic substances only when substances are hazardous enough, and exposures are high enough within the ‘general population’ that our government decides they warrant some level of restriction. The changes proposed to CEPA would consider the negative health impact that hazardous exposure during ‘critical windows’ can have – such as during prenatal, infancy and puberty stages. It also considers Indigenous, racialized, and low-income communities who are exposed to higher levels of toxic chemicals because of where they live or work. 

Cumulative effects: We currently assess hazardous chemicals in isolation. This change considers the impact of our real-life exposures, as we are exposed to multiple chemicals simultaneously. These chemicals can interact with each other and cause a very different effect from those caused by the individual chemicals alone. 

This Bill is a welcome start, and we will work to make sure it goes further to make environmental rights, a precautionary approach to approving chemicals, and public transparency more meaningful and complete. 

Here’s what we’ll be pushing for: 

  • Make environmental rights meaningful, procedurally clear and easily made operational. In the current draft of the legislation, this new right is being framed in a manner where it will be  “balanced” against economic considerations – this balancing language needs to be removed.
  • Ensure that more class-based risk assessments are undertaken, such as for PFAS or ‘forever chemicals’ so that whole groups of similar dangerous chemicals can be restricted at once. This will ensure that hundreds or thousands that are similar do not have to be evaluated one at a time.
  • Prioritize prohibiting toxic substances of high concern, establish clear timelines for assessment and management actions of toxic chemicals, and ensure that toxic chemicals are replaced by those that are safer.
  • Establish better mechanisms for public participation and access to information, and make it harder for companies to claim Business interest confidentiality as a reason to hide product ingredients from the public when there are health and environmental hazards. 

The introduction of this Bill comes at a time when the latest research states that we have reached a planetary boundary on chemical hazards. We need to start reducing our toxic chemical footprint immediately if we want to have a healthy future.  We can design an economy that prevents massive future harms, burdens, and costs that are punted onto the next generation. 

We need this government to go further to catch up to the 156 countries that already have environmental rights, and join the EU on prohibiting toxic substances.

We will be working with this knowledge about the urgent need for change as we push for these further amendments to make CEPA better. We will keep you informed and identify opportunities for you to get involved as we work to create a strong toxics law for Canada.