This week, the federal government discussed their ambition to tackle highly hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals regulated under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). Improvements were made to Bill S-5 when it was introduced in the Senate. We are watching with bated breath to see if chemical industry resistance and lobbying will take precedence over protecting human and environmental health. 

When 1 in 8 women in Canada are now being diagnosed with breast cancer, a  number higher than it was four decades ago, we know we have a problem that goes beyond genetics. We now know that 70 to 90 per cent of breast cancers are related to environmental exposure. 

This problem exists because CEPA, Canada’s main toxics law, hasn’t been updated in over 20 years, and many of the products we use every day may contain harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These chemicals include phthalates, BPA and PFAS and have been linked to causing cancer and other serious health implications.

This legislation fails to protect us from exposures that put our health at risk, and we urgently need protection from new emerging hazardous substances. 

Environmental injustice and disproportionate toxic exposures

Cancer rates are projected to rise by 47 per cent in the next two decades as increasing chemical exposure and environmental pollution takes their toll. 

Indigenous and racialized people, particularly women and children, are disproportionately exposed to environmental pollution and toxic substances. 

Indigenous communities contend with industrial pollution that increases their exposure to environmental harms, and wild foods and medicinal plants can expose Indigenous people to environmental contaminants. 

Racialized women are at increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer from exposure to toxic chemicals in personal care products that are not addressed by the current CEPA legislation. 

This is our problem to solve as Canada is falling behind the U.S. and global initiatives to tackle the injustices that disproportionately impact racialized, Indigenous and low-income communities. We need more – not less – strengthening of this CEPA bill to tackle equity issues and environmental injustice. 

Real action is needed to improve our toxics law

Meaningfully improving CEPA must include:

  • Air quality standards: air pollution is linked with cancer, heart disease and dementia. Almost 15,000 people die from air pollution every year in Canada. Without enforcement provisions and penalties for violations, we remain unprotected.
  • Transparency and labelling: There is currently no right to know about the hazardous substances found in widely available consumer products – particularly for low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as bisphenol-A and phthalates. EDCs imitate hormones and can impact our cancer risks. Mandatory labelling must be implemented to protect consumers, and the law must limit the current practice of companies keeping information about these hazards confidential. 
  • Mandatory timelines: Those being exposed to toxic chemicals would be better protected with timelines for clear actions taken when harms have been identified. The law must also include a “safe substitution” provision so that companies don’t replace an identified toxic with another chemical that’s just as bad. CEPA must require the government to reassess a substance if new evidence emerges about potential threats. 

We can’t wait any longer for this federal government to stand up to industry lobbyists, reform CEPA and finally deliver on their environmental justice promises that have led to countless health harms and deaths. 

A future without cancer requires taking steps for strong CEPA reform – and this government needs to support improvements to Bill-5. 

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