Toronto Globe and Mail, 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 assessments.

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 substances.

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 substances.

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 environment.

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 way.

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.