Good morning and thank you very much for the opportunity to be here.
My name is Dayna Scott. I am an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University.
I have been conducting legal research into chemicals management regimes for well over a decade. My expertise is related primarily to part 5 of the act dealing with toxic substances, to the principles of environmental justice, and to the design of regulatory regimes to protect vulnerable populations.
I believe there are a number of simple, feasible reforms to the act that can be made that would strengthen its operation, prevent pollution, and better protect all Canadians from the risks posed by toxic substances.
To be clear, these are significant risks encountered every day through ambient pollution from releases to air and water from industrial sources, but also increasingly from exposures as a result of our everyday use of consumer products containing toxic substances added to plastics, furniture, carpets, electronics, and more.
The amendments I recommend in my brief derive from four basic principles.
First, CEPA should better protect vulnerable populations and communities. In other words, the act should advance environmental justice. Canadians now expect that environmental laws will be not only effective but equitable. For CEPA, this requires concrete changes to address the disproportionate pollution burdens on vulnerable people and marginalized populations.
Second, regarding the precautionary principle, this means that, in the face of scientific uncertainty, we should err on the side of protecting public health and the environment.
Third, the assessment and regulation of toxic substances should be evidence-based. A precautionary approach embraces the emerging and the best scientific evidence.
Finally, relating to the safe substitution principle, this holds that regulators should be required to consider alternatives to the use of toxic substances in designing their control measures and to require the use of a safer substitute where one is available.
Currently, part 5 fails to prevent regrettable substitutions, creating what we often call the game of regulatory whack-a-mole. The government is forced to continually react, as industry changes its formulations, by replacing listed substances with other similar but under-examined chemicals. In this respect, I agree with the previous witnesses who have called for alternatives assessment or a safe substitution principle.
Overall, my submission is that CEPA part 5 is outdated and ineffective compared to chemical regulation in other jurisdictions, specifically the European Union. In order to achieve environmental justice, it requires significant amendment.
The most critical shortcoming of CEPA that I would like to draw to the committee's attention is one that, frankly, surprises ordinary Canadians and my students once it's explained to them. It is that a finding, through a rigorous risk assessment, that a substance is toxic under the act does not lead automatically to an obligation on the part of the government to actually ensure that exposures are reduced over time. The most obvious example of this failing is in relation to a class of flame-retardant chemicals known as the PBDEs.
Specifically, I'm going to speak about decaBDE. This substance is linked to thyroid, liver, and neurological problems. A full decade after this substance was found to be CEPA-toxic, it is still all around us. It is in this room. It's in your home. It's in your children's computers.
The law we have now appears to allow the government to select a meaningless regulatory option, such as prohibiting something that never happened in Canada in the first place, namely the manufacture of PBDEs, instead of a meaningful regulatory response that would protect Canadians from the exposures that actually threaten us, i.e., the import of consumer products that contain decaBDE. Indeed, the current law not only allows the government's regulatory response to be meaningless with respect to PBDEs, it also expressly allows the government to do nothing, to take no regulatory action at all in response to listing this substance as toxic.
Thus, I submit that the committee should seriously consider amending CEPA to implement a requirement for mandatory precautionary action, so that Canadians do not continue to be regularly exposed to substances that have been deemed toxic under the act, like the flame retardant decaBDE.
Next, I urge the committee to consider making changes to the definition of toxic under the act. In CEPA 1999, toxic is defined as a substance that's entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or concentration, or under conditions, that may cause harm to the environment or human health.
This definition relies on risk assessment practices that systematically underestimate real world exposures. This is for a number of reasons. First, the risk assessments proceed one substance at a time, even though in reality we're exposed to a complex toxic soup. Second, many of the chemicals in that toxic soup act cumulatively or synergistically in the body in ways that we don't fully understand. Third, some sources of exposures are not being routinely included in the risk assessments, such as occupational exposures.
Further, the exposure assessment built into section 64 relies on the idea of a threshold. It assumes that there will be some level of exposure to toxic substances, below which people will not experience adverse health effects. This toxicological paradigm, known as the “dose makes the poison”, is outdated and has for several years been breaking down under the weight of emerging science. This is most obvious in relation to endocrine disruption.
For these hormone-mimicking chemicals, it's now clear that low dose exposures are extremely significant and can cause a wide variety of health harms related to growth, metabolism, and reproduction, and a number of chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity. The extent of the harm depends more on the person's sex and the timing of exposure than it does on the so-called dose. Scientists have identified several windows of vulnerability in which people are susceptible to being impacted by exposures at very low levels. In utero exposures are a particular concern.
Our current definition of CEPA-toxic is unable to prevent these modern, low-dose pollution harms from endocrine disruption.
I'd like to offer another quick example of how the act is failing.
I published an op-ed in The Globe and Mail in 2012, shortly after the endocrine disrupting substance BPA was listed as toxic and the government took action to prohibit its use in baby bottles. In it, I pointed out that even though environmentalists had applauded this action, fetuses and infants were still being exposed to BPA because pregnant and breast-feeding women were still being exposed to it from the lining of tin cans, and at work, etc. I indicated that young children drinking from water bottles that were labelled BPA-free were still being exposed through their alphagetti and their tomato soup.
This incensed mothers. I received more mail after publishing this piece than I ever could have imagined. People told me they had gone out and spent their good money and valuable time getting the right bottles because their government had led them to believe that be doing so they could keep their family safe from this chemical, and they felt betrayed.
The current reality is that four years after BPA was listed as toxic, most of us continue to be exposed to it everyday from a variety of sources.
Finally, the committee has expressed interest in learning how we can make the act more equitable.
One way to do this is to consider the people disproportionately affected by toxic exposures. They include women working long hours as cashiers handling receipts containing BPA; single parents shopping at the discount store for kid's lunch containers; infants in neo-natal ICUs where toxic plasticizers have been found in medical equipment; people living in communities on bus routes or near cement plants; indigenous teenagers growing up on-reserve in Aamjiwnaang, downstream of Sarnia's petrochemical cluster, or in Akwesasne; auto workers in plastics manufacturing plants; recent immigrant women working at nail salons; and all of us, any of us, who happen to encounter an exposure during a biological window of vulnerability.
From an environmental justice perspective, I submit that it's unacceptable to have a regulatory approach that relies on Canadians reducing their own exposures to under-regulated substances via their consumption choices. This approach cannot account for the varied abilities and capacities of differently situated people. In reality, all of us would choose not to be exposed to toxic substances if we had full control, and equal political power and purchasing power.
An equitable approach is to require precautionary regulatory action that works toward reducing toxic exposures across the board, so that disparities of geography, income, gender, education, race, and indigenous status are not further entrenched by our environmental laws.
To conclude, my recommendations seek to achieve a more equitable and precautionary outcome. I urge the committee to consider these recommendations carefully.
I thank you very much for your time today.