Current Issue: April 5, 2013 Next Issue: September 2013
If there was lead in your lipstick, coal tar in your conditioner, and hormones in your whole milk, you’d never know it from the labels.
Many products commonly found in Canadian homes, from baby shampoo to bathroom cleaners, are full of toxins and chemicals known to cause cancer and other long-term health problems. Unlike other countries, Canada does not have a list of carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxicants and toxic products are not required to be labeled as such.
A private members bill, Bill C-408, also known as the Toxic Substances Labelling Act, introduced on Mar. 14 by NDP MP Peter Julian is designed to address that situation.
The bill would force companies to identify if their products have chemicals that may cause cancer. Both Canadian and imported products would require warning labels, listing the toxic substances they contain and describing the risks involved with using the products.
Bill may face resistance
The bill is endorsed by both Toxic Free Canada and Option consommateurs in Quebec, but as a private member’s bill it stands little likelihood of being passed. Supporters of the bill say they think the issue is not of high priority for the current government.
“The Harper Conservatives have not the slightest interest in environmental protection,” says Gideon Forman, executive director of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. “If they did, they would be supporting this bill because it’s just a common sense piece of legislation. It’s not radical at all.”
Forman says the bill might put pressure on manufacturers to reduce toxics in their products leading to much safer products. He also says the market would reward products containing fewer toxins and penalize products with many toxins in them, and Canadians would have an informed choice because of the labels.
Lisa Gue, an environmental health policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation. says this could be a golden opportunity for Canada.
In a society that values transparency, we should be able to make informed choices and have the right to know what’s in our products.
“The one advantage of being a laggard in this field is that Canada can be a model for this system, and create legislation that’s on the leading edge,” says Gue. “Science and policy are evolving very quickly right now. There’s room for improvement on what’s been done so far, and we can use that to create the best system possible.”
Canada requires warnings on products that may cause acute and immediate health risks. Anything corrosive, poisonous, or explosive must be labeled, but items containing mutagens or with cancer and reproductive health risks can go warning-free. Gue says the model used for acutely-dangerous products should be extended to include those products with long term and chronic health risks.
“It’s really surprising. Some of the arguments we hear are that it’s expensive to switch labels and new labelling will be confusing for consumers,” says Gue. “When manufacturers don’t want to tell us about the chemicals, I begin to wonder what else they have to hide.”
“In a society that values transparency, we should be able to make informed choices and have the right to know what’s in our products,” she says.
Labelling only a step
Although labelling is a step in the right direction, both Forman and Gue say they believe certain substances deserve to be banned. For instance, Forman says lead is still used in consumer products, even ones that babies put in their mouths. He argues either producers should be forced to get rid of every trace of these toxins found in their products or not be able to sell them.
As important as this bill is, Forman says he wouldn’t hold his breath for big changes in the near future.
The US example
NDP MP Peter Julian's private member's bill has drawn comparisons to a unique law in California known as Proposition 65 or the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.
The two main sections are as follows:
"No person in the course of doing business shall knowingly discharge or release a chemical known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity into water or onto or into land where such chemical passes or probably will pass into any source of drinking water."
“No person in the course of doing business shall knowingly and intentionally expose any individual to a chemical known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity without first giving clear and reasonable warning to such individual” It is this second section that relates to Julian’s bill.
The penalty for failing to label products could be a fine of $2,500 per day for each violation.
Coca Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc avoid toxins
Proposition 65 was in the news recently when Coca Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc learned that an ingredient in their soft drinks made the list.
California recently added 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) to its list of carcinogens. This chemical was added to the list after study linked it to cancer in rodents.
4-MEI is found in the caramel colouring that gives the soft drinks their brown colour.
Coca Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc have both changed the way they make their products to avoid a cancer warning label on their products.
The change is only needed in California but both companies say they will make the changes nationwide.
According to California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, regardless of how companies like PepsiCo Inc or Coca Cola Co. change their process to avoid a warning label, they are still happy there is reduced exposure of harmful chemicals to the public.