November 28, 2005

Toxic Nation study tests average Canadians for presence of chemicals

A mix of toxic chemicals was found to be present in every person tested in a Canada-wide study, released earlier this month by Environmental Defence. Two volunteers were tested in British Columbia, one in Alberta, one in Manitoba, three in Ontario, three in Quebec and one in Newfoundland and Labrador. Environmental Defence published the results of the study in Toxic Nation: A Report on Pollution in Canadians.

The group says its study is the first in Canada to test for a broad range of chemicals in average Canadians from across the country. It shows that chemicals such as DDT, PCB, stain repellants, flame retardants, mercury and lead are present in Canadians no matter where they live, how old they are or what they do for a living. Many of the chemicals detected in the bodies of the volunteer study participants are associated with adverse health effects such as cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive disorders and respiratory illnesses.

The Toxic Nation study tested the blood and urine of 11 volunteers from Salt Spring Island in British Columbia to St John's in Newfoundland and Labrador. Working with qualified laboratories in Quebec and Texas, Environmental Defence tested the volunteers for 88 individual chemicals.

The laboratories found a total of 60 of the 88 chemicals tested (68%), including 41 suspected cancer-causing chemicals, 27 chemicals linked to hormone system disruption, 21 chemicals associated with respiratory illnesses, and 53 chemicals associated with reproductive disorders and developmental problems in children. On average, 44 chemicals were found in each volunteer.

The levels of some chemicals detected in the volunteers suggest that effective regulation to ban the most harmful toxic substances can reduce the pollution in people over time. Older volunteers in the Toxic Nation study had higher levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB, banned in Canada in 1977) than the younger volunteers.

"Participating in this testing program was very important to me," said Robert Bateman, from his home on Salt Spring Island. "Not only am I curious about my own chemical contamination, but it is even more vital that the public as a whole pays attention." Test results for the well-known artist and naturalist found 48 chemicals present.

David Masty, a First Nations leader from northern Quebec, was found to have 51 chemicals, including the highest levels of mercury and persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs and organochlorine pesticides. These findings are consistent with previous research indicating that many chemicals tend to accumulate in the far north, despite the distance from most stationary sources of industrial pollution, due to air and water currents and climate conditions.

The study report calls on the federal government to ensure Canadians receive the same level of protection from toxic chemicals as Europeans and Americans, two jurisdictions that are on their way to being well ahead of Canada in regulating these substances. With the mandated five-year review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) now in progress, Environmental Defence has made several recommendations aimed at bringing the regulation of toxic chemicals up to international standards.

The federal government, says the report, should establish timelines to virtually eliminate the use of toxic chemicals, starting with some of the most harmful: brominated flame retardants (PBDEs), perfluorinated chemicals and their precursors (PFOS) and phthalates.

It should make industry accountable for its chemicals, first by shifting the burden of proof onto industry to prove the safety of its chemicals prior to introduction or continued use in the market. The government should also require industry to adopt a safe substitution policy, to replace toxic substances with safer or non-toxic alternatives.

The report also calls for an expansion of CEPA to regulate toxic chemicals that may be released during the use or disposal of consumer products. Lastly, says Environmental Defence, the government should create a special section in CEPA to focus on pollution reduction in the Great Lakes basin.

In April, Parliament assigned the Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development the task of carrying out the CEPA review; it has one year to complete its review and present a report and recommendations (i.e. spring of 2006). The review procedure requires the government to respond to the committee report within 120 calendar days, outlining how it will address the recommendations (likely by next August). If new regulations or amending legislation are required, these would be introduced in 2007, with Royal Assent and proclamation (if required) following in 2008.

Toxic Nation: A Report on Pollution in Canadians, including test results of the individual volunteers from across Canada, may be viewed on-line at www.toxicnation.ca.

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