Armed with tests that suggest the body of every Canadian carries trace evidence of dangerous chemicals, Ontario’s New Democrats are spearheading an effort that would help them learn exactly what carcinogens or toxins they are exposed to on a daily basis.
Toxic chemicals are in many everyday products, from household cleaners and laundry detergents to hair dyes and cosmetics, said NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns, who is pushing for a new law that would compel manufacturers to disclose dangerous ingredients in their products.
Consumers would demand changes if labels told them exactly what a product contains, Tabuns said in an interview.
“Right now, most people don’t know whether or not products that they buy have cancer-causing agents in them.”
Tabuns hopes to convince Ontario to follow the example of California, where community right-to-know legislation has helped get arsenic out of bottled water and lead removed from some candies. Manufacturers there opted to find alternatives rather than list carcinogens on their labels, he said.
“They are not going to want to have that label on their products,” Tabuns said. “They know that consumers, especially parents, don’t want to subject themselves to exposure.”
He cited the example of Gillette, which reformulated Liquid Paper correction fluid to eliminate trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, rather than comply with California’s 15-year-old law to label the product with a warning that the ingredient could cause cancer.
The members of Canada’s Chemical Producers Association believe in right-to-know legislation, but “the devil is in the details,” said Michael Bourque, the association’s vice-president of public affairs.
He cautioned against labelling products that contain only a few parts per billion of a certain chemical – levels that scientists say are safe.
“One problem (is) where you provide a fire hose of information that no one can drink from it, or you provide lists of things that are in such minute quantities that we don’t know whether there’s an impact,” Bourque said.
“Do we support giving people information that’s going to confuse them, alarm them unnecessarily? No, we don’t.”
The lobby group Environmental Defence has issued three reports since 2005 detailing tests on Canadian children, adults and even four federal MPs that found evidence of 68 different chemicals, including pesticides, PCBs, stain repellents, fire retardants, mercury and lead.
Environmental Defence policy director Aaron Freeman said legislation like that proposed by Tabuns is “absolutely essential” in order to help protect consumers.
“You’re seeing consumers making environmentally sound choices when they’re given information, (such as) the slow-motion explosion toward organic food and non-toxic alternatives in areas like pesticides and cosmetics,” he said.
“It’s true that some chemicals are only in certain products at very small amounts, but for some chemicals, those small amounts are still very toxic. At a very basic level, if something is toxic, we have a right to know.”
Tabuns’ private member’s bill, dubbed the Community Right to Know act, has received second reading in the Ontario legislature, but there’s no indication the Liberal government will agree to hold public hearings on the bill or allow it to come back to the legislature for third and final reading.
Anne O’Hagan, the senior communications adviser to Environment Minister Lauren Broten, said the government supports the general idea behind the bill. “More information can only be a good thing when it comes to the environment.”
Tabuns’ bill also calls for better worker access to warnings about harmful chemicals they are exposed to on the job, and he plans to introduce companion legislation, a Toxic Use Reduction act, to force companies to cut the use, waste and spillage of toxic chemicals.
The European Union and the state of Vermont have similar product-labelling laws, and Tabuns said it’s time Canada started catching up with those jurisdictions that help protect consumers from dangerous chemicals.
“This issue really has arrived, and the political momentum among the public is there,” he said. “If the (Liberals) don’t act, they will face the loss of support from environmentalists and public health advocates in the next election.”