Toronto Globe and Mail  [Printer-friendly version]
September 14, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: From household cleaners to pop bottles,
ingredients previously ignored may affect health, scientists say]

By Martin Mittelstaedt, Environment Reporter

After a massive investigation spanning seven years, federal scientists
[in Canada] have determined that a staggering total of about 4,000
chemicals used in Canada pose enough of a risk to human health or
wildlife that they need to be subjected to in-depth safety

Staff at Environment Canada and Health Canada are planning to give the
list of chemicals to their respective ministers later today, the
beginning of what is expected to be the biggest effort ever undertaken
in the country to deal with potentially harmful substances used in
everything from pop bottles and lip balm to household cleaners and
plastic baby bottles.

All 4,000 chemicals will be studied, but the ministers will decide
which ones pose the greatest threat and should be studied first. They
will also decide whether any regulations are needed to control those

Federal officials expect to make public the chemicals they're worried
about in the next few weeks, along with a plan for dealing with the

But they're already saying they have conducted the most comprehensive
review ever undertaken in the world of potentially harmful compounds
in widespread commercial use.

"We're actually quite proud of what we've done here. We are the first
country in the world that has done a systematic review of all of the
chemicals in use," said Paul Glover, Health Canada's director-general
of safe environment programs.

Mr. Glover said the government assessed the chemicals because of
worries they might be factors contributing to disease or illness.
"Quite frankly, we think that that might be the case and that's why
we've done this work," he said in an interview.

Recent scientific research has cited some widely used chemicals that
weren't originally assessed for possibly causing cancer, declining
sperm counts, attention-deficit disorders and other ailments.

Many of the chemicals to be subjected to assessments are contained in
products virtually all Canadians come into contact with, while others
are used extensively by industry in manufacturing, where workers face
possible exposures and factory emissions could contaminate the

Industry officials and environmentalists have worked closely with the
government in compiling the list of suspect chemicals. This list
includes about 4,000 compounds needing review, although federal
officials refused to confirm that number yesterday.

Some of the chemicals have been used extensively in consumer products,
including polyethylene terephthalate, a building block for pop
bottles; styrene, a component in many plastics; toluene, a solvent
used in household cleaning products; and bisphenol-A, used to make
dental sealants.

"These toxic chemicals are found in many aspects of our lives,
everything from personal-care products, cooking pots and pans,
electronics, furniture, clothing," said Rick Smith, executive director
of Environmental Defence, a conservation think tank based in Toronto.

Some of those who have seen the list are calling for quick government
action to limit use of the questionable substances. Federal law gives
Ottawa the power to ban or place restrictions on the use of compounds
deemed harmful.

"These chemicals are the worst of the worst," said Fe de Leon, a
researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association. "There has
to be comprehensive regulatory action, not just on a handful of the
chemicals [but] all 4,000."

The chemicals selected for review were in commercial use before Canada
adopted its first comprehensive pollution legislation, the Canadian
Environmental Protection Act, in 1988.

At that time, there were 23,000 substances in use exempted from safety
study because federal regulators decided to concentrate on screening
new chemicals, of which there are about 800 introduced a year, rather
than deal with the problems posed by substances already on the market.

But recently, there has been an international effort to come to grips
with the possible health consequences of the widespread use of these
inadequately assessed chemicals.

In Europe, a review of the safety of grandfathered chemicals is under

The exemption in Canada meant that tens of thousands of chemicals have
been legally used for years, despite never having been formally
assessed -- or having been poorly assessed -- for the risks they might
pose to either human health or to the environment.

The decision, made years ago, by the government to permit use of these
older chemicals angered some environmentalists because it may have
exposed Canadians to needless health risks. "They've completely
failed" because they've allowed nearly two decades of use of the
chemicals, said Mr. Smith, whose group conducted tests that found many
Canadians have residues of harmful chemicals in their bodies.

To try to close this regulatory gap, a group of scientists from both
Health Canada and Environment Canada spent the seven years jointly
poring over the long list of grandfathered chemicals.

In selecting those in need of further study, authorities looked at
each of the exempted chemicals and picked some because they are in
such widespread usage that almost everyone in the country is likely to
be exposed.

As well, they've also screened the list for those chemicals that are
"inherently toxic," the government's term for substances that pose
health threats to humans or wildlife, while also possessing the
dangerous attributes of accumulating in living things and being
resistant to natural breakdown into less harmful substances.