Ontario Right to Know Act would reveal cancer-causing chemicals, pollutants
UPdate Fall 2007

A law which would have guaranteed Ontario citizens the right to know whether consumer products contained known or suspected cancer-causing chemicals died when the Liberal government called an election in October. Bill 164, the Community Right to Know Act, had passed second reading with support from all parties.

The Community Right to Know Act contained two major sections.

The first section addressed consumer products and services. It required companies to include warnings if a product contained cancer-causing chemicals or chemicals which can cause reproductive damage.

The bill’s wording makes the problem clear:

No prescribed supplier shall supply to a consumer goods or services that expose the consumer to a toxic substance described in subsection (2) unless the supplier first warns the consumer of the exposure in the prescribed manner.

Clearly, consumers cannot assume that everyday products or services are free of recognized cancer-causing chemicals.

The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO) strongly supported Bill 164. “We know that the environment is a major determinant of health and people flourish best when they live in clean, green environments,” stated Association President Mary Ferguson-Paré.

“The time for procrastination has passed. People are demanding action from their legislators and governments. Nurses are speaking out on this issue because we will not allow Ontarians and their children to be sickened by environmental causes,” added Doris Grinspun, RNAO Executive Director.

The second section of the bill called for establishment of a pollutant inventory of hazardous chemicals released into air or water by both large and small industries.

Rick Smith, Executive Director of Environmental Defense Canada, underlined the need for this type of pollution inventory. “At present, the only pollution disclosure system we have is the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI). …NPRI tracks only 321 chemicals. Many carcinogens are not included in this list. In addition, NPRI deals only with large facilities ­ those that release more than 10 tons per year, and employ more than 10 people. In Toronto, this means only 3 percent of facilities that handle toxic chemicals report to NPRI. [Ed note: In Atlantic Canada, the percentage would be even lower.]

“The small and medium sized facilities that are left out of NPRI account for a huge portion of pollution. To take just one slice of this sector, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 35 per cent of air pollution comes from auto body shops, dry cleaners, printers and small factories. In Canada, virtually none of these facilities would be reporting under the NPRI, despite the fact that the International Agency for Research on Cancer specifically lists many of these activities under the “Exposure Circumstances” for known, possible and probably carcinogens.”

The private members bill was tabled by NDP MPP Peter Tabuns and gained broad support from both health and environment organizations.

Community Right to Know Legislation has been in effect in California for 20 years. It is also in effect in Vermont, and the European Union. No jurisdiction in Canada has yet adopted this type of legislation.