|February 19, 2018|
Canada must strengthen its key environmental protection law
|Canada needs to clean up its act. That's the clear message from 540 scientists and doctors who appealed to the Trudeau government this week to toughen this country's cornerstone environmental protection law.|
They wrote urging Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to follow through with changes to the most important law governing pollution and the use of toxic chemicals, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).
There's a lot at stake in terms of both health and dollars. Air pollution alone, the scientists and doctors point out, causes 7,000 premature deaths a year in this country. And pollution costs Canada a minimum of $39 billion a year in direct costs, according to one authoritative estimate. That's $1,100 per person.
And yet Canada is a laggard in this area, despite our self-image as leaders in environmental protection.
The scientists point out that Canada is the only western industrialized country without legally binding and enforceable national air quality standards. Indeed, Canada's outlier status on this important environmental protection led UNICEF to rank Canada 25th among rich countries on children's well-being due to the state of its air quality.
At the same time, they note, harmful chemicals from consumer products cause asthma, allergies, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and low birth weight.
Much of this is because CEPA hasn't been updated since 1999, while toxic chemicals have become increasingly common in all sorts of consumer products. As scientist David Suzuki wrote in the Star last summer, "In its current form, it's badly outdated and is failing to protect Canadians."
Further, the toxic substances are accumulating not only in humans but in wildlife, potentially affecting the reproduction and survivability of key species. Studies on Great Lakes fish, for example, show high levels of toxic chemicals released from consumer products and industrial processes.
A House of Commons committee undertook a 16-month review of the law and last June made 87 recommendations to strengthen it.
In their letter to the government this week, the scientists and doctors single out 11 of the recommendations. They urge McKenna to make sure they are included when she announces her planned updates to CEPA in June.
All are sensible. In fact, it's hard to believe they are not already included in the act. They include:
*Making sure that substances of concern, such as carcinogens, are prohibited unless manufacturers can prove they can be used safely in specific applications and there are no feasible substitutes.
*Establishing national air quality standards that are legally binding and enforceable. Canada now has a patchwork of provincial standards.
*Increasing the budget for enforcement of the act.
*Including "triggers" in the act requiring that chemicals be assessed. For example, assessments should automatically be conducted when a member country of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development bans or restricts a substance or new scientific evidence about it comes to light.
*Introducing mandatory labeling of toxic substances in consumer products. That would include chemicals suspected of causing adverse health effects such as cancer, birth defects, reproductive harm and allergic reactions.
The scientists also ask the government to recognize that Canadians have a right to a healthy environment, as citizens of more than 150 countries around the world do. "Human health, well-being, and dignity depend on access to clean air, soil and water, safe food and a stable climate," they write.
The government has a chance to take an important step forward this spring by strengthening Canada's environmental protection law. The appeal from the scientists and doctors is a sharp reminder that this is an opportunity it must not miss.