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Friday September 21, 2007

Does Canada need a national environmental health strategy?

Does Canada need a national environmental health strategy?

OTTAWA, September 19, 2007 (GLOBE-Net) – This week the David Suzuki Foundation released a report by B.C. environmental lawyer David Boyd arguing that Canada needs a national environmental health strategy to address how contaminants in the air and water are affecting the public’s wellbeing. The report says Canada lags behind other countries - including the United States and Australia - in monitoring how environmental contaminants affect children; that Canada has weaker standards on the use of pesticides; and that we lack legally-binding national standards for air and drinking water quality. While comparisons with other countries on regulatory regimes is not the best way in which to argue the case for action on the home front, this report is a sober reminder that environmental factors remain one of the leading causes of illnesses that sap our collective social and economic wellbeing.

The Report notes that environmental contaminants in our air, water and food are linked to asthma, poisonings, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, developmental disorders, birth defects, and reproductive problems.

There is compelling evidence that at least 10,000 people die prematurely in Canada because of exposure to environmental hazards in air, water, food, and consumer products, the report’s principal author David Boyd told CBCNews.ca on Tuesday.

"Millions of Canadians become ill because of exposure to pathogens and contaminants. The costs to Canada of environmental impacts on health are in the tens of billions annually," he is quoted by CBC.

Four key areas requiring attention by the federal government are noted in the report:

  • A lack of legally binding national standards for air quality and drinking water quality.
  • Continued use of pesticides that have been banned in other countries.
  • Allowance of higher limits of pesticide residues on foods compared to other countries.
  • Lack of regulation of toxins such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, phthalates and polycyclic hydrocarbons.
  • Weak regulations for toxic substances such as radon, lead, mercury, arsenic and asbestos.

Existing regulatory regimes in some key areas are deficient, states the report. For example Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) fails to require reporting on the following toxic substances: PBDEs and other chemical threats posed by consumer products;Many endocrine disrupting substances; Pollution from mobile sources, such as cars and trucks, including aldehydes produced by the combustion of ethanol; New products generated by nanotechnology and biotechnology; Pollution from agricultural operations or urban run-off; Pollution from sources such as dry cleaners, gas stations, and small manufacturing facilities.

Boyd argues Canada must strengthen its laws, regulations and policies to transfer the onus onto industry for proving "beyond a reasonable doubt" that their products are safe, and that manufacturers must be required to use products with safer alternatives to toxic chemicals currently in use.

"We must adopt a preventative and precautionary approach to our future. There are safer substitutes for most, if not all, of the toxic chemicals currently being used and released into the environment," the report states.

Other recommendations include:

  • Improved research and monitoring of the effects of contaminants on the public, through blood, urine and other tests;
  • More professional development in the area of environmental health by educational and medical institutions;
  • Support for international laws aimed at phasing out certain toxins and contaminants such as mercury and asbestos.

The report cites examples of what can happen when concerted efforts are made to deal with specific environmental health problems. For example Sweden banned PBDEs, a toxic group of industrial chemicals widely used as flame-retardants, after Swedish scientists discovered that concentrations of the toxin in women’s breast milk were doubling every five years. Subsequently, there was a rapid decline in the concentration of PBDEs in the breast milk of Swedish women, and no noticeable negative economic impacts on Swedish society, notes the report.

The report also stresses that in Canada, environmental health hazards disproportionately impact Aboriginal and poor communities and that any environmental health policy must recognize the heightened vulnerability of children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems.

Canada’s record with respect to environment-related health problems has been documented by other reliable sources. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a comprehensive, country-by country analyses of the impacts environmental factors have on health. The data show huge inequalities, as the worst affected countries are developing nations suffering from a lack of water and energy infrastructure.

See GLOBE-Net article: Creating a Healthier Environment

That report suggests 36,000 deaths each year In Canada are due to environmental factors, including 2,700 from levels of particulate matter in outdoor air. Particulate matter is a key component of smog and in industrialized countries comes mainly from transportation and industrial emissions, as well as wood burning, dust erosion from wind, and ash from forest fires.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 30% of the global burden of disease in children can be attributed to environmental factors. At least three million children under five years of age die annually due to environment-related illnesses. Recent WHO reports suggest that air and water contaminants, pesticides in food, lead in soil, as well many other environmental threats can alter the delicate organism of a growing child and in turn cause or worsen disease and induce developmental problems.

According to the WHO the two most prominent environmental risk factors globally are unsafe water, including poor sanitation and hygiene; and indoor air pollution due to solid fuel (e.g. wood, charcoal, coal) for cooking. In twenty-three countries, these two issues are thought to cause more than 10% of total deaths.

While indoor air pollution from cooking with solid fuel such as wood, charcoal or animal wastes are less a problem in Canada than elsewhere in the world, water quality issues remain an element of concern.

The Suzuki Foundation report is correct with respect to the lack of enforced national standards for monitoring of water quality. See GLOBE-Net Business Report: “Canada – We have a Water Quality Monitoring Problem!”

As has been noted in previous GLOBE-Net articles, dealing with environmental conditions that have demonstrable health impacts necessitates that strong and enforceable policies be set by all levels of government. As well, more support is required for large scale water and energy infrastructure projects that reduce levels of contaminates in air, soil and water and which can enhance quality of life for entire communities. Government policies can also help guide the transition to cleaner technologies that will lessen the negative impacts on the environment associated with everyday industrial activity.

Also, when the federal government finally settles on a national climate change response strategy, it must not overlook the positive health impacts associated with a shift away from over dependence on fossil fuels. As noted in the Suzuki Foundation report and elsewhere, rising temperatures associated with climate changes are projected to aggravate existing health problems. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will have the co-benefit of reducing air pollution, which in turn will lead to decreased urban smog levels and lower health care costs.

To this end the Suzuki report states Canada must stop treating the atmosphere like a free dumping ground for greenhouse gas emissions. Strong regulations that limit emissions from all sectors should be implemented immediately, along with economic instruments that put a price on carbon and that make polluters pay.

Some positive steps have already been undertaken. Planned moves to eliminate lead in gasoline and reduce the sulphur content in transportation fuels will have had significant positive results in these areas.

But we have a great deal more to do. Whether the ‘Prescription’ outlined in the Suzuki Foundation Report is the correct path to follow remains an open question. But credit must be given where it is due, and this report sets out the issues in a manner that can only help in moving us forward toward a national consensus on the need to act.