Scientists say toxic stew harming Canadians; tougher pollution laws needed
By Lisa Arrowsmith
Posted December 11, 2006
EDMONTON (CP) - A toxic stew of chemicals from birth control pills, shampoo and even compounds used to make foam seating pours out of sewers and pipes across Canada every day, and hundreds of scientists say Ottawa must do more to stop it.
More than 700 scientists signed an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, urging the federal government to do more to crack down on the chemicals they say are hurting human health.
"A significant body of scientific evidence is drawing links between toxic chemicals and health conditions such as cancer, asthma, autism, learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, birth defects and low birth weight," reads the letter released Monday.
The scientists also urged Harper to make industry prove that chemicals are safe before they're used in consumer goods, rather than keep the current system, which requires governments to prove there's a problem before they can ban them.
Work is now underway in Parliament to update environmental regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which hasn't been reviewed since 1999.
David Schindler, an award-winning ecologist from Alberta, and John Smol, a prominent environmental researcher at Queen's University, spearheaded the letter campaign in hopes of influencing the way new regulations are crafted.
They want the federal government to protect ecosystems such as the Great Lakes, where substances such as flame retardants and pharmaceuticals have been detected in the water.
Compounds used in electronics production and insecticides are also being belched into waterways, Schindler said Monday in Edmonton.
"These were not supposed to accumulate or to be transferred long distances in the atmosphere, but science has shown that they are," he said.
Scientists are especially concerned about the effects of pharmaceuticals and personal care products that are pouring out of sewage plants, because not much is known about the possible long-term health implications of the those materials.
Worries include "everything from birth control hormones to antibiotic derivatives to some of the common painkillers that humans use and then excrete," Schindler said. He added that many chemicals, such as the ones used to make foam seating and electronics, are still unregulated.
"We really don't know what the effects of many of these are in single doses, let alone in combination with other chemicals, so it's really time we put the brakes on."
In 2005, the Ontario Medical Association estimated that smog alone accounted for 5,800 premature deaths and more than 60,000 emergency room visits in the province in a single year.
Studies done in the Arctic suggest that mercury levels are leading to high blood pressure in newborn babies and are causing polar bears to lose cubs at birth.
"I think it's important to put the environment firmly on the political or social agenda or plate," said Smol.
"It seems that it's constantly falling behind on other issues and while it does come up on political issues, like right before a potential election, it has to be there on a fundamental level."
Last week, the federal government announced a $300-million, four-year program to curb toxic chemicals.
The announcement followed a seven-year effort to identify dangerous substances among the 23,000 chemicals available in Canada.
Smol called the federal government's announcement a good first step, but said federal regulations should be more holistic.
He said that instead of simply focusing on healthy drinking water, regulations need to protect entire waterways and the ecosystems that are the source of that drinking water.
These things affect the entire economy - everything from human health to commerce and even tourism, he said.
"I think (the federal government) needs to show some strong leadership in dealing with this at a broad, national level."
Erik Waddell, a spokesman for federal Health Minister Tony Clement, said Ottawa takes the review of current legislation very seriously and that's what was behind last week's announcement to more strictly regulate possibly harmful chemicals.
"As part of our announcement on safe chemicals last week, we're requiring that industry demonstrate to us that they are using chemical substances safely," Waddell said from Ottawa.
"If they can't do that, they either have to switch to a chemical they can prove is safe, or stop producing what they're producing."
He said the federal government is concerned about the potential health effects of things such as chemicals used in flame retardants and non-stick coatings for cookware.
He said in drafting new regulations, federal officials will draw from a wide variety of scientific knowledge about toxic chemicals, including from some of the scientists who signed the letter.