Moving toward a toxic-free world
Cars, paper, textiles, electronics, building materials, food and yes, even medicine. Each of these contains some form of chemical. It’s no surprise the global production of chemicals increased 400 per cent from 1930 to 2000. Yet it’s estimated only five to 15 per cent of chemicals in use have been tested to determine their toxicity to humans or their ability to cause environmental damage.
More of these sub-stances are also being released into the environment. Canadian statistics compiled from 1995 to 2002 indicate the amount of toxic pollutants reported released and transferred increased by 49 per cent.
Despite legislation to provide workers with information and training about workplace hazardous materials they continue to be unacceptably exposed. The International Labour Organization estimates more than one million workers have contracted cancer from workplace exposures.
What’s more alarming is the emerging science which tells us more traces of these substances end up in our bodies from the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. One in three Canadians will contract cancer in their lifetime. This, and studies finding increased rates of asthma, autism and learning disabilities among children have many questioning possible occupational and environmental causes.
Fearing they will become the canaries of this generation, worker activists are demanding new approaches to remove hazardous substances from workplaces altogether. They want a new regulatory framework and progressive public policies targeting workplace sources of pollution. This they say will also spur the creation of greener, cleaner work processes and sustainable jobs.
The discussion is timely. Several pieces of legislation governing toxic substances have recently come under review.
This spring the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) introduced amendments to O. Regulation 833 that sets out occupational exposure limits (OELs). In total, OELs were lowered for 37 substances and limits for another 27 were added.
In their submissions to the proposed OELs, workers and their representatives repeated a long argued position — a risk assessment approach is not protective of worker health because it presumes there is a safe level of exposure to toxic substances. Further, they maintain there is no safe level of exposure to carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and other chemicals known to persist and accumulate in the environment and ultimately in our bodies.
The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) submission observed, “If we are to prevent future occupational disease, we must aim now to reduce the use of existing toxic substances or processes and provide the framework for development of new, non-toxic substances and processes in production. The successful reduction of toxic substances and processes in the workplace will also play a key role in diminishing environmental pollutants.”
Vern Edwards, OFL director of health, safety and environment, also wants the MOL to abide by its Statement of Environmental Values (prescribed under O. Reg. 73/94). It says the MOL contributes to Ontario’s environmental well-being by encouraging the substitution of hazardous substances with those that are less hazardous. “From talking to workplace representatives we don’t know of any orders being issued for substitutes,” says Edwards. “We want the MOL to make good on this commitment.”
British Columbia, Newfoundland, Quebec and the federal jurisdiction have some regulatory requirement for substitution, but they fall short of measures needed to protect worker and community health.
With this in mind health, safety and environmental activists are weighing in with their suggestions as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act
(CEPA 1999) undergoes a mandatory, five year parliamentary review. CEPA is the primary piece of legislation in Canada intended to prevent pollution and protect the environment and human health by identifying, categorizing and evaluating toxic substances.
The Canadian Environmental Law Association, a legal aid funded clinic specializing in environmental law, has provided a thorough critique in their report, Within REACH: An Agenda for Improving the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999.
It identifies systemic problems they say contribute to the backlog of unevaluated chemicals such as limited government resources, a lack of specific time frames, time consuming substance by substance assessments and a lack of public access to the system.
CEPA’s preamble refers to the precautionary principle yet critics argue the legislation has been underutilized as a tool for pollution prevention, fostering instead pollution control schemes.
The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) is among those calling for an overhaul to Canada’s chemical management regime. Dave Bennett is national director of health, safety and the environment for the CLC. Bennett advanced this vision at a recent occupational disease conference sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, “Pollution prevention avoids the creation of pollutants, eliminates the need for ineffective end-of-pipe controls and ultimately protects both worker and public health.”
The federal government has promoted voluntary compliance in implementing environmental protection measures, only rarely do they order pollution prevention plans. The CLC and others want to see CEPA fully enforced and strengthened to create a national pollution prevention model then roll it out to the provinces through enabling legislation. It would adhere to substitution, toxic use reduction and hazard assessment approaches.
Many are looking to the European Union (EU) for leadership in this area. In October 2003, the EU proposed to replace three European Directives and one Regulation with one overarching piece of legislation. Known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) the legislation, currently before the European Parliament, would be among the most progressive in the world.
Most significantly the law would shift responsibility from government to chemical manufacturers and suppliers to register and evaluate substances. The simple logic driving the system is—no data, no market. Chemicals of high concern may be authorized for restricted use. Downstream users would also have to demonstrate the safe use of these substances.
Bennett likes the REACH proposal because it considers manufacture, export and use of a substance. “Focusing on use in the workplace makes sense,” says Bennett, “because employers, unlike chemical manufacturers, don’t have a vested interest in the product.”
Occupational health benefits from this scheme have been estimated at between 18 billion to 54 billion euros over a 30-year period corresponding to a yearly reduction of 2,200 to 4,300 cancer cases.
Extended Producer Responsibility laws in Europe further hold manufacturers responsible for vehicles, electrical and electronic products throughout their entire life cycle, phasing in reuse, recovery and recycling rates from 80 to 95 per cent. Coupled with these laws are those restricting the use of some of the most problematic chemicals, including lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and in the case of electrical and electronic products, fire retardants like polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) as well.
Closer to home, advocates point to successful Toxic Use Reduction laws in Massachusetts which mandate companies to report on releases and total use of toxics in the work process.
All of these initiatives will encourage research and manufacture of safe alternative substances and work processes.
Bennett sees workers playing a critical role in this transition to sustainable, healthy work. They can begin by insisting on workplace pollution prevention plans. “I don’t think it’s an added burden for joint health and safety committees. It simply means moving from a traditional approach of exposure control to a new one promoting exposure elimination. This holds the greatest hope for protecting the health of our workforce and our communities.”