Blog: Revising Canada’s chemicals legislation needs to promote safer substitutes for toxic chemicals in products

Blog post by Bev Thorpe, environmental consultant and co-founder of Clean Production Action, and Fe de Leon, Researcher and Paralegal with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) – which regulates how Canada assesses and manages chemicals in the Canadian economy is under review This is a good thing because our chemical framework does not promote the use of safer substitutes to hazardous chemicals – particularly in the products we use in our homes and workplaces. Instead it strives to reduce or manage exposure to hazardous substances which often reinforces the use of toxic chemicals. Yet much of our exposure to toxic chemicals is via the products we use in our daily lives. These include everyday flame retardants in furniture, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) stain and grease repellants in carpets, food packaging and furnishings, phthalates in plastic products and BPA in paper receipts. These chemicals are widely detected in indoor dust, water and air and many of these chemicals are linked to childhood learning disabilities, different cancers and reproductive and developmental impacts.

The drycleaning sector is a case in point in how we failed to promote safer chemicals use. In 2003 perchloroethylene (PERC), a widely used solvent in the drycleaning sector was declared ‘toxic’ under CEPA. Environment Canada compiled an extensive report on alternatives to PERC in drycleaning and the Canadian Centre for Pollution Prevention (C2P2) began to engage with drycleaners to disseminate information on alternative non-PERC solvents and technologies. But the C2P2 no longer exists and outreach was halted. The result is that our regulations continue to focus on reducing exposure to PERC rather than promote safer alternatives.

Compare this to Massachusett Toxic Use Reduction Institute’s program for drycleaners which provides active assistance to drycleaners to transition from PERC to safer Wet Cleaning processes through small grants, trainings and promotion. The stark difference in approach to PERC use for drycleaners in Canada and Massachusetts represent a missed opportunity to promote innovation to safer chemicals use.

More recently Canada restricted the use of BPA, a known endocrine disrupting chemical, in baby bottles but neglected to restrict its use other products including food can linings or thermal receipt paper. Yet thermal receipts are the single largest source of exposure to BPA for humans, with cashiers most at risk from exposure. Compare this to Europe’s impending phase out of BPA in thermal paper by 2020 which has stimulated innovation in bisphenol-free thermal paper to meet market demand.

Changing our regulatory framework to develop an action plan on products that contain hazardous chemicals would help. For instance, CEPA could mandate alternatives assessment and substitution planning for all CEPA-toxic chemicals with a priority on products that pose the highest risks to the public, workers and other vulnerable populations. As a priority we need to urgently address the use of PFAS in products sold in Canada. Health Canada acknowledges that “oral hand-to-mouth contact with consumer products, such as carpets, clothing, and upholstery, is a significant contributor for infants, toddlers, and children.” In fact PFAS is a growing threat to Canadian health and our environment which can never be solved by the current chemical by chemical risk management approach within CEPA. To address this threat, we could develop a program similar to the California Safer Consumer Products Program which listed carpets, rugs, textiles, and leathers treated with PFAS as priority products for alternatives assessment and regulation. For food packaging, the city of San Francisco is banning compostable single-use food service ware containing PFAS by January 2020 due to health risks from PFAS exposure, plus the growing contamination of industrial compost from PFAS and the fact that PFAS-free alternatives are available. Other programs such as the State of Washington’s ‘Safer Products for Washington Program’ targets 5 entire chemicals classes for restriction in a range of products including carpets, cosmetic fragrances, printing inks, can linings, thermal paper, upholstery, and juvenile products. Chemical restrictions will require safer alternatives be feasible and available.

CELA submitted amendments to CEPA that would require substitution planning for all CEPA-toxic designated chemicals along with technical support for companies. The government has contracted experts to identify ways to implement safer substitutes as outlined in the Combined Government Discussion Paper and Science Committee Report on Informed Substitution (2018).

But we need substitution planning to be mandatory, not a voluntary option. This will require a fundamental restructuring of CEPA’s mandate to proactively focus on product policy and solutions. We cannot leave it to company leaders to hopefully move the market to safer products – we need regulations that will clearly promote safer chemicals use.