Blog: The lack of public awareness in Canada around PFAS is both disturbing and perplexing.

Is it because we don’t have a problem with these chemicals in Canada?

Blog posted by Beverley Thorpe

The evidence shows otherwise.

#1. The vast majority of us, even communities in our far north, contain levels of PFAS in our bodies.

This chemical class of Per- and Polyfluoroalkly Substances (PFAS), contains around 6,000 substances that will remain in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. So their use in consumer products and industrial facilities will not degrade but hang around in our waterways and air and reside in our landfills and soils. Health Canada has monitored for a small sampling of PFAS and found them in 99% of Canadians. Evidence continues to grow that health impacts from these chemicals include disruption to the immune system, increased risk of thyroid disease, disruption to the liver, increased blood cholesterol levels, and in higher exposed communities, cancer.

#2. PFAS is widely found in house dust in our homes mostly because of PFAS in consumer products.

We are all exposed to these chemicals through food, drinking water, and house dust. Many consumer products contain these chemicals – which can eventually leach out into air, and onto our hands. The average person will be surprised to discover that PFAS is used in non-stick kitchen ware, cosmetics, food contact materials such as grease-proof wraps and take out containers, microwaveable popcorn, clothing, and carpets plus upholstery treated for water and stain resistance, to name a few. Children are particularly vulnerable. Health Canada notes that for infants, toddlers, and children their main exposure is hand-to-mouth contact with consumer product, such as carpets, clothing, and upholstery. But because we have no labeling requirements for these chemicals, consumers have no idea if PFAS is used in their pizza boxes or food take-out containers and wraps or products they bring into the home. For workers who handle PFAS or for communities living near PFAS contaminated sites or landfills, consumer product exposure from PFAS adds to the problem.

#3. We lack public access to information about PFAS hotspots in Canada – but we know PFAS is used at airports, military bases, oil and gas fracking sites, metal coating, chemical manufacturing, plastics and resins, and mining and refining sites — to name a few.

To date there is no publicly disseminated information about where PFAS is present in Canada. Yet we know from data compiled by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and recently revealed on October 17, 2021, that there are more than120,000 locations around the US where people may be exposed to PFAS – four times more than what was originally assumed. We have the same type of facilities here in Canada – but no similar data is available. In October and November 2020, the CBC Radio show and podcast Quirks & Quarks produced a three-part series on PFAS in Canada, including Canada’s first map of compiled PFAS hotspots and surface water contamination based on what was known at the time. This map is a good and essential first step – but based on the recent US findings, this map may be an underestimate. We need government accountability for where PFAS is used, what level of contamination exists and how clean up will happen.

So why do we have such low public awareness about PFAS in Canada?

  • This general lack of public awareness about PFAS contamination may be because Canada has never manufactured PFAS and we have had no scandals similar to the contamination of water by PFAS producers as portrayed in the film, Dark Waters; or
  • Could it be that we are not socially inclined to demand the same access to information that our neighbours to the south routinely expect? For example, in the Great Lakes-St Lawrence River basin, the states of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, and Maine have comprehensive PFAS action plans, describe how PFAS has entered the environment and provide citizens with updates about remediation, testing and future policies. In comparison, Ontario and Quebec do not even have drinking water regulations for PFAS. Even the US Department of Defense has an extensive PFAS website featuring up to date information on PFAS cleanup efforts, task force reports, video testimonies, and more; or
  • It might be because we just want to leave chemical issues in the lap of ‘experts’ which is why federal government publications about PFAS are generally highly technical and written in regulatory language, or
  • It could be that we – or our different levels of government – assume that our smaller number of airports, military bases and manufacturing facilities using PFAS, and landfills containing PFAS, could never create a PFAS contamination problem similar to other countries’ problems?

Whatever the reasons, this lack of transparency ends up being a two-way street. We don’t know and therefore don’t ask what authorities and companies are doing to implement safer alternatives; or we assume the government is taking care of things and so we don’t push for transparent accountability. All of this needs to change. Because what is becoming increasingly obvious is that our legislative framework is inadequate and cannot respond quickly enough to the pollution from chemicals that have been permitted for use in Canada over 4 decades.

The Canadian government has recognized that we need a new approach for PFAS and over the next two years will be drawing up a state of PFAS Report to summarize relevant information on PFAS But this report needs to go beyond presenting PFAS report and outline a plan to promote PFAS-free products on the market, ensure contaminated sites are cleaned up, provide good public access to information and actively invite communities into the decision making process. Without public engagement it could end up to be a slow bureaucratic process with a timid outcome.

That is why CELA’s new Resource Guide provides information and ways to take action for more community right to know and protection. The Guide is the newest addition to the PFAS factsheets, webinars and reports that CELA has produced over the last two years around this important issue.

A few good voices from a range of communities can make all the difference in moving Canada towards a toxic-free future. On October 18th the Biden Administration revealed its new PFAS strategy to grapple with the ongoing contamination from these ‘forever chemicals’ and progress will be closely followed by citizens groups in the US. Here in Canada let’s hope we can generate the same interest.

Beverley Thorpe has worked with CELA on various toxics projects including a focus on PFAS.