Toxic ignorance
UPdate Fall 2007

The government's plan to assess the risks of environmental substances on humans is way overdue
By Tom Muir and Barbara McElgunn
The Hamilton Spectator
(Feb 10, 2007)

We would like to say hooray and hallelujah to the federal government's recently announced Chemicals Management Plan (CMP) -- but there are so many policy disconnects that we have to question whether government labs and science capacity are sufficient to deliver this critical environmental health agenda.
Human biomonitoring studies are showing that everyone carries a body burden of environmental chemicals, and that even newborns are exposed prenatally to numerous environmental chemicals. Over the past decades, toxicity studies have provided increasing evidence of low-dose adverse effects to certain chemicals, particularly during early stages of development.

Unlike the United States, which established the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 1966, Canada does not have an integrated environmental health science institute. In Canada, environment and health are maintained as separate mandates in different departments. In addition, almost none of the large Canadian health research budget has been directed to the connections between environmental toxicants and disease, and despite federal budget surpluses in recent years, there has been little federal recruitment of young scientists to replace those retiring.

Over the past 20 years, there have been severe budget cuts to important scientific programs such as the Science Council of Canada and the Environmental Directorate at the National Research Council. During those years, ongoing cuts to federal labs and to other regulatory programs continued. Federal water science, research and management capacity have been decimated since 1994.

The dismantling of scientific programs relevant to health protection continued despite the Liberal Party's Red Book statement in 1997: "Our ability to deal with complex health and environment problems depends heavily on the scientific resources of government labs and other institutions."

Government and international scientists, and the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, have spoken out on the lack of good health surveillance and tracking data, and gaps in science programs, safety evaluations and regulations. Recently, more than 700 Canadian scientists, citing evidence of chemical pollutant injury to human health, petitioned the federal government to strengthen and adequately fund the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

There is concern, and in some cases ample evidence, that exposures to environmental chemicals are playing a role in rising trends in the incidence of some diseases like asthma, certain types of cancer, and learning and behavioural disorders in children. At one time, these afflictions were rare events.

However, as of 2005, after decades of steady increase, 1 in 2.3 men and 1 in 2.6 women are expected to contract cancer in their lifetimes, 1 in 10 children have asthma, and the Centres for Disease Control in the U.S. estimates that 1 in 166 children have autism.

Then prime minister Brian Mulroney funded the first Great Lakes Health Effects Program (GLHEP), and that research found significantly higher disease rates in populations living in certain "Areas of Concern." Despite these findings, there was no follow-up study, and the GLHEP was cancelled in 1999.Treasury Board and cabinet could reverse this if the Harper government reconsidered support for the 10-year, billion-dollar Great Lakes Ecosystem Renewal program that was prepared in 2004/05 by environment and health departments, but not approved.

The announcement of the Chemicals Management Plan by the Harper minority government presents an opportunity for the federal government to start addressing a backlog of environmental health issues. The CMP signals a recognition by government that Health Canada and Environment Canada will need increased science capacity to carry out assessments and possible risk management actions on the thousands of substances that have been found to be of concern to human health and/or the environment via the groundbreaking program that categorized the 23,000 chemicals on the Domestic Substances List.
New approaches need to be taken in assessing risk. For example, it is known that some classes of industrial chemicals and pesticides can interfere with hormone signals that organize the construction of developing systems, including the immune system, reproductive anatomy, the brain and those that produce gender differences. In an increasing number of cases, these effects are noted in experimental studies at exposures comparable to those actually experienced by some proportion of the population, possibly explaining some of the disease burden we see today.

Canadian scientists were the first to note similar hormonal effects in wildlife around the Great Lakes 35 years ago. However, to date, little progress has been made by the federal or provincial governments to implement an effective research program to identify chemicals that act singly, and more realistically, in mixtures, to disrupt the endocrine system, or to implement a regulatory program to bring the identified chemicals under control.

As an economist, Prime Minister Harper should be aware that the costs of the fraction of disease and disorders attributable to environmental exposures have been estimated in a number of published studies to be in the billions of dollars a year.If we are to improve our ranking in productivity and innovation, Canada needs a healthy and intelligent population.

Ignorance regarding the effects of environmental exposures affects our economy in lost productivity, health and education costs, and lost earnings.
Successive federal governments have allowed the pendulum to swing a long way toward protecting investments rather than protecting the people of Canada.
It now makes good economic sense to bring environmental health research into the 21st century, in order that sound policy decisions can be made to protect the health and development of our children, and to ensure the true "competitiveness" of our nation.

Tom Muir is a retired environmental economic scientist with Environment Canada. He is currently active in independent research.

Barbara McElgunn serves on the professional advisory board of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC), the Advisory Council of the Canadian Institute of Child Health, and as a consultant to the Research committee of LDA America.

What is CMP?

The federal government announced the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP) in December, to continue substance categorization work by Health Canada and Environment Canada. In 2006, categorization of the 23,000 "legacy" chemicals on the Domestic Substances List was completed -- based on greatest potential for exposure, hazard to human health, persistence and/or bioaccumulation. Most of these chemicals came onto the market with little or no information regarding their potential to be hazardous to people or the environment. The CMP will provide funding over four years for the assessment, risk management and/or regulation of those that were categorized as high priority. Under the CMP, the government has instituted other programs -- for example to obtain health monitoring and surveillance data and new toxicity and use information on hundreds of chemicals from industry; immediate action on five high-volume and persistent chemical substance categories; and a website:

What needs to be done:

* Establish a new Canadian Institute for Environmental Health Research under the aegis of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.
* Designate a percentage of the funding under Canada's Research Chairs Infrastructure Program toward post-secondary education and research programs in environmental epidemiology and toxicology.
* Reconsider the Great Lakes Ecosystem Renewal program submitted to cabinet in 2005, but not supported, as a means to recruit new environmental scientists.
* Expand environmental health research at Health Canada into new and emerging areas such as toxicity-testing methods and developmental immunotoxicology.
* Couple disease surveillance and trends with results from new biomonitoring studies, to make possible links between exposure and disease.
* Provide the authority under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to regulate potentially harmful substances in consumer products.