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Overhauling Canada's toxic chemicals law should be priority: advocate

OTTAWA — A new report suggests retailers in Canada are lagging behind American companies in removing hazardous chemicals from their products.
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OTTAWA — A new report suggests retailers in Canada are lagging behind American companies in removing hazardous chemicals from their products.

Muhannad Malas, the toxics program manager at the advocacy group Environmental Defence, said he is disappointed in the findings of the fourth annual report card on how American and Canadian retail companies manage chemicals that have been linked to things like cancer and organ damage.

He said it underscores the need for Canada to finally overhaul the law that governs toxic chemicals.

"Across the U.S. retail sector we see continuous improvement when it comes to taking action on toxic chemicals," he said.

"In Canada, we're not really seeing improvement."

He said the United States doesn't have any stronger regulations or laws for chemicals than Canada does, and that most of the action there is voluntary.

But if Canadian companies aren't going to do it on their own, he said, then the Canadian Environmental Protection Act could be used to try and force the issue.

"One of the arguments one could make is that our regulations in Canada do not incentivize or encourage retailers to go beyond the regulatory level," he said.

He said Canada needs to be more restrictive about "chemicals of high concern," including things like per- and polyfluoroalykyl substances, also known as PFAS, and bisphenols.

They are used to make plastic packaging stronger, or to help packaging, carpets or building materials repel oil and water. They have also been linked in a number of studies to cancers, liver and kidney damage, obesity, hormone disruptions, thyroid issues and infertility.

Some of the chemicals are on a list of prohibited substances, but Malas said there are many exemptions, including in many imported manufactured goods, which makes the prohibition meaningless. He said some of the alternatives that were developed to replace banned chemicals are proving to be just as bad but haven't even been assessed by the Canadian government.

Ottawa began doing its mandatory five-year review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act in 2016, but decided to push off making any changes to the law until after October's federal election.

There was little focus on toxics during the recent campaign but the Liberals did include a single sentence in their platform promising to update the law.

Malas is hoping fixing the environmental protection act will be a priority once the new cabinet is named Wednesday. The changes will be complex and take a lot of consultation, so he worries if it's not introduced right away, the minority Parliament could fall before the law is passed.

The House of Commons environment committee made 87 recommendations for improvements to the act in 2017, including better management of toxic chemicals.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna — who is being moved to a new file in Wednesday's cabinet shuffle — committed to some of the changes, such as preventing the replacement of a chemical that is determined to be toxic with an alternative that is no better.

Scientists want Canada to amend the law to force the makers of chemicals to prove the products are safe before they can be used, rather than the current onus requiring a product to be proven unsafe before it can be restricted. McKenna did not commit to doing that.

In the report card, U.S. home renovation giants Home Depot and Lowes got credit for promising to eliminate harmful chemicals from carpeting and rugs by the end of this year, and food companies Whole Foods and Panera Bread promised to do the same from packaging and take-out containers.

Canadian retailers like Metro, Sobeys and Restaurant Brands International were all given a failing grade in the report card for not having a public commitment to phase out the use of any chemicals of concern. Canadian Tire got a D-plus and Loblaw a C, both of which did take some steps to remove chemicals from products.

Canadian Tire, for example, removed some toxic chemicals from paint strippers and food contact products and Loblaw was credited for having a public policy that includes phasing out some chemicals that aren't restricted yet, and applying that phase-out to packaging and food and hygiene products.

None of the Canadian companies responded to a request for comment about the report on Tuesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2019.

 

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press




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