Don’t depend on the government to tell you which chemicals are safe, outspoken UBC scientist Maria Issa says. The feds, she told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview, just aren’t up to the challenge.
“A little bit of intelligence on the consumer’s part will go a long way,” Issa, an associate professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine, said. “I can’t expect the government to do it all because there’s just too much.”
Issa’s do-it-yourself advice is timely in light of three recent toxic-chemical developments, which all point to a federal government struggling to live up to its responsibility to evaluate/regulate more than 23,000 common consumer chemicals.
First, bisphenol A, a chemical used in plastics, made April headlines when health minister Tony Clement announced his intention to ban baby bottles containing the compound. This was after a government review found BPA—common in polycarbonate water and baby bottles sold in Canada since at least the 1980s—is potentially toxic to humans.
Second, on May 12, Vancouver-Fairview MLA Gregor Robertson reintroduced a private member’s bill that would require warning labels for products containing toxic chemicals. The Vancouver-based Toxic Free Canada also wants mandatory labelling.
Third, in January, the federal government quietly started releasing “draft screening assessments” for 200 common in-use chemicals, and what they’ve found is scary. So far, scientists working on the “Challenge” component of the Chemicals Management Plan (chemicalsubstanceschimiques.gc.ca/ ) have discovered chemicals that potentially represent a “high hazard to humans” in some toys, glue, perfume, chewing gum, household pesticides, cleaning products, car parts, cosmetic additives, art supplies, furniture and automotive upholstery, mattresses, pillows, packaging, carpet underlay, and many other common consumer products. Some are suspected carcinogens, such as isoprene (found in medical equipment, inner tubes). Others, like D4 (cosmetics, textiles), are potential “reproductive toxicants”, which may decrease fertility or cause miscarriages. Unlike BPA, they did not make headlines.
As the Challenge assessments wrap up in small batches over the next months, there will be a 60-day period for public input. Then the Challenge will recommend what action to take on each substance, which could mean more research or a management plan.
No one from the Challenge returned the Straight’s calls by deadline.
The buzz is new, but the process is old. In 1986, the feds started reviewing 23,000 in-use chemicals for classification and possible action. By 2006 all but 4,000 chemicals had been dealt with. Those remaining 4,000 were recommended for further study, and, of those, 200 were channelled into what became the Challenge. In other words, 3,800 chemicals that have been in use in Canada since at least the 1980s have yet to be reviewed.
To Issa, this shows why consumers need to take responsibility for their own actions. We simply don’t know if our chewing gum or lipstick or pillows can cause cancer.
“We are constantly besieged by our environment, but we create it,” she said, noting that most toxic chemicals come from convenience or luxury items. “We demand these products”¦”˜I want my [plastic] baby bottle, dammit.’ Why can’t I use a glass bottle and wash it? ”˜I want a plastic bottle because its easier to carry; it won’t break when my kid drops it.’ We want everything; we want no responsibility. We want the government to take care of it. I don’t buy that.”
Issa’s answer is education and simplification. She thinks Canadians should think like scientists so they can ask intelligent questions about the products in their world and choose products they know are safe. For example, she said, go to a butcher who wraps meat in brown paper rather than frequent a supermarket that places meat on an absorbent plastic pad, on Styrofoam, under cellophane, and in a plastic carrying bag.
But Sean Griffin, the research coordinator with Toxic Free Canada, believes that most Canadians are uncomfortable with taking on that kind of responsibility. Some chemicals reviewed by the Challenge so far, he said, are “more scary” than BPA. But because there’s no media attention on them, they get lost, he said.
“You say chemicals to a lot of people and they have distant, scary memories of their Grade 9 chemistry class and run in the opposite direction,” he told the Straight in a phone interview. “I think most Canadians would think the regulation of chemicals is best left to authoritative and educated government agencies.”
Toxic Free Canada’s lobbying for hazard-labelling puts the responsibility on government to identify risks. Individuals should be able to read a label that says “contains epichlorohydrin, a suspected carcinogen” and choose to not buy the product. Most individuals, Griffin explained, wouldn’t know what epichlorohydrin was if it simply appeared on an ingredients list (it is a suspected carcinogen, according to the Challenge, that is used in making glycerine, “an ingredient or processing aid in personal care products, drugs, food, and beverages”). In California, he said, clear-and-reasonable-warnings legislation has resulted in manufacturers having to change their formulas, because when customers understood the hazards associated with their products, business dried up.
What most Canadians don’t understand now, Griffin noted, is that the government does not screen all products before they hit the market. And, as in the case of the Challenge, when the government does screen, the process is “glacially slow”. Plus, even if a substance is declared toxic, he said, that doesn’t mean any action will be taken on it, such as the proposed BPA ban.
In fact, the proposal is only to ban the BPA in baby bottles, so all other plastic items that may contain BPA are buyer-beware, Griffin noted. Canadians, he said, need the government’s help in this, and hazard-labelling is a start.
“I think they’re [Canadians] beginning to see the impact [of poor chemical management], both in rising cancer rates and a whole lot of other things, like neurological disorders among children, like autism. It’s [the Challenge] a good step that we’re beginning to deal with the most toxic. But there really needs to be an overhaul of the whole system.”
In the meantime, Griffin drinks from a no-BPA high-density polyethylene reusable Nalgene water bottle. Issa drinks from glass and washes her house with that old standby: vinegar.