Pollution law is outdated, experts warn
Seven hundred top scientists sign letter urging Ottawa to strengthen legislation.
The main federal law used to fight pollution in Canada needs a major overhaul to protect the public from the emerging peril of hazardous chemicals used in consumer products, say a large number of prominent scientists who have written an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper urging that the legislation be strengthened.
The letter, which is being made public today, has been signed by about 700 environmental scientists, including a who’s who of prominent Canadian academics specializing in pollution research, with at least 25 Royal Society members, 14 Canada Research chairs and five Order of Canada recipients.
They want the government to strengthen the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the country’s overarching pollution law, which is currently under review by committees of both the House and Senate. The letter argues that the law should be revised to force industry to prove chemicals are safe before they are allowed on the market.
“CEPA requires significant improvements in order to deal with the emerging challenges of harmful substances in our environment,” the letter says.
“Canada has a growing pollution problem that is a threat to both human health and the quality of our environment,” the letter says, adding that “a significant body of scientific evidence” is linking poorly regulated chemical pollutants to cancer, asthma, autism, learning disabilities in children and hyperactivity disorders.
The CEPA was last revised in 1999, and the legislation requires that Parliament conduct a review of it every five years. Many environmentalists think the minority Parliament, where parties often have to be more flexible, offers an opening to get improvements in the law passed.
Among the prominent academics signing the letter are David Schindler, a University of Alberta professor who has helped organize the effort, and John Smol, a Queen’s University professor. The two environmental researchers are past winners of the Herzberg Award, Canada’s most prestigious science prize.
Many scientists “are frightened almost by how current administrations around the world, including our own, are not taking the environment anywhere near as seriously as they should,” Dr. Smol said in an interview. “The environment is such a critical issue and it’s not really very clearly on the political plate right now.”
Dr. Schindler, one of Canada’s best-known water researchers, said that federal environmental monitoring has been undermined by years of budget cuts to the point where he thinks the government has lost its capacity to control pollution. “We’ve gone from having superb agencies in the 1970s to where there is nothing left. As a result, we have weak laws and the enforcement of it is deficient,” he said.
Among the biggest problems with CEPA, according to the letter, is that potentially harmful chemicals contained in consumer products are not explicitly covered by the law.
For instance, televisions are regulated to make sure they don’t catch fire or explode, but the chemicals used in the devices to confer these properties often have not been adequately assessed for their safety or environmental impact.
This is a concern because many recent health research papers have linked chemicals used in everyday products — such as plastics, non-stick cookware and computers — to a variety of health problems including cancer, hormone disruption and attention-deficit disorders.
In addition, current legislation allows industry to use potentially harmful substances, while placing the burden on regulators to prove the material is dangerous.
In showing chemicals are safe, manufacturers should be required to test whether new compounds pose risks to children and infants, according to the scientist’s letter. Current testing protocols try to determine if large-dose exposures of chemicals to adults cause acute poisoning. But many compounds in consumer products have been found to have subtle effects in animals given low doses early in life or in utero.
The letter and the names of the scientists who endorsed it are to be posted today on http://www.scientistsforahealthyenvironment.ca.
Dr. Schindler said scientists have been clamouring to sign and some have had to be turned away because the list is being restricted to those who have PhDs.