By MARTIN MITTELSTAEDT AND GLORIA GALLOWAY
Saturday, December 9, 2006 – Print Edition, Page A1
TORONTO, OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced one of world’s most sweeping efforts to regulate harmful chemicals, a move that comes as the opposition Liberals try to usurp control of the environmental agenda under new leader Stéphane Dion.
The new strategy “will make Canada a world leader in the testing and regulation of chemicals that are used in thousands of industrial and consumer products,” Mr. Harper said at a news conference yesterday.
The Chemicals Management Plan will cost $300-million over four years and is aimed at regulating roughly 23,000 so-called legacy chemicals — substances produced or imported before 1988, when the government began applying a rigorous assessment of risk.
Although the preliminary review by scientists at Health Canada and Environment Canada has found that thousands of the chemicals pose hazards, the government will focus on the 500 most dangerous and will subject them to the first detailed assessments, beginning next year and ending in 2010. Based on these reviews, Ottawa will make decisions on new regulatory controls against them.
The new chemicals strategy comes after the Conservatives took hits internationally over their inaction on climate change. Environment Minister Rona Ambrose has insisted that it is too late to meet Canada’s agreements under the Kyoto accord without imposing harsh measures that would cause energy bills to skyrocket.
The Liberals, on the other hand, have chosen as their leader a man who was environment minister from 2004 until the party’s defeat in 2006. Mr. Dion, who is promising to campaign on a platform of environmental sustainability, says he can meet Canada’s Kyoto commitments by 2012.
Yesterday’s attack on toxic chemicals is the kind of environmental policy for which the Conservatives have demonstrated a preference. As with smog reduction, the need to control harmful substances Canadians encounter in their everyday lives is more easily comprehensible than greenhouse-gas emissions.
And it provides a way of countering the attack the Liberals had clearly been planning on the environmental front.
“I think this has got as much to do with Mr. Dion as anything else,” said Nathan Cullen, the NDP’s environment critic who accuses the Liberals of being inactive on the toxic-chemical file, even during Mr. Dion’s tenure.
“I know some of the people involved in designing this; they wanted something more salient and concrete to compare and contrast themselves on an issue that the Liberals would like to try to reclaim.”
But Mr. Dion, whose party initiated the compilation of the list of legacy chemicals several years ago, said the government has had the list since September but has done nothing until yesterday.
“If the health of Canadians is a priority for Mr. Harper’s minority government, why did Minister Ambrose delay taking action for three months, only to come out with such a weak plan that won’t be implemented until 2010?” he said in a release issued late yesterday.
The new plan follows a review completed earlier this year by government scientists that found a staggering 4,000 chemicals in widespread commercial use may be hazardous to either human health or wildlife.
Because of the large number of suspect chemicals and the sheer number of products they’re used in, it is likely that almost every home in Canada contains some items Ottawa is now worried are dangerous.
Mr. Harper received some rare praise from environmentalists yesterday for his announcement.
“It’s a significant step forward,” commented Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, a Toronto organization that has tested Canadians for many of these chemicals and has found that everyone had trace amounts in their tissues.
Mr. Smith said he expects the announcement will lead to restrictions in the use of the chemicals, and to less exposure to cancer-causing compounds. “It will mean less carcinogenic substance in consumer products around our homes. It will mean that there will be measurably reduced levels of pollution in the Canadian environment,” he said.
Ottawa’s chemical hit list
The government says there are thousands of chemicals that could pose threats to human health and the environment. Among those it deems of greatest concern are:
Bisphenol A: This is one of the most widely used compounds in Canada, found in a large number of plastics products. It is the primary chemical in polycarbonate, used to make office-cooler water jugs, dental sealants, baby bottles and the resin lining inside most tin cans. Research has linked it to cancers and declining sperm counts.
Perfluorinated carboxylic acids: These are chemicals used to make non-stick and water- and stain-repellant products ranging from kitchen pans to clothing. The government wants exposures reduced because experiments have shown the chemicals undermine immune systems and skew development.
Perfluorooctane sulfonate: This is a non-stick chemical the government worries could be reaching harmful levels in wildlife. Although North American manufacturing stopped in 2000, there are still worries it may be imported in consumer goods.
Phthalates: These are widely used to make plastics softer and more pliable, often with polyvinyl chloride. Although they were once used in baby products, such as rubber duckies, the government says it has worked with companies to end these type of uses. However, it is still used in vinyl flooring, some blood bags, lubricating oils and perfumes. Research on laboratory animals has linked phthalates to changes to the liver and kidneys, and birth defects. They are also suspected hormone disrupters.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers: A family of related chemical compounds used as flame retardants in mattresses, computers and other consumer products. Research indicates they are a thyroid disruptor in animal tests. The government is proposing new regulations for the types of PBDEs of greatest concern. Martin Mittelstaedt