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Beyond BPA: We need to get tough on toxics

The Globe and Mail by Dayna Nadine Scott 4 January 2012

Did you breathe a sigh of relief when Canada became the first jurisdiction in the world to declare bisphenol A (commonly known as BPA) toxic in 2010? OR when it banned the chemical in baby bottles, prompting many manufacturers to remove it from their products?

We inhale, ingest and absorb a litany of synthetic chemicals into our bodies every day, and improving scientific detection methods are making our toxic “body burdens” increasingly obvious.

Environmental health experts believe the rising incidence of many cancers, developmental syndromes, reproductive disorders and autoimmune diseases can be tied to our exposures to chemicals. An emerging body of research demonstrates that even low levels of exposure to certain chemicals, at certain key times, can have dramatic effects.

In 2006, the Harper government introduced the Chemicals Management Plan, saying it was going to get “tough on toxics.” But recent research finds that, even though it added BPA to the list of toxic substances, the chemical’s still turning up in foods that Canadians commonly consume. Even though we know it leaches into foods such as tomato soup, it continues to be used as an additive in the linings of tin cans.

The critical flaw in our law is that finding a substance “toxic” doesn’t automatically mean the government must actually restrict its use. It “may” regulate, as it did by prohibiting BPA in baby bottles, but it may also choose to keep the substance on the market for economic reasons, or to avoid stigmatizing a particular company’s product.

So although BPA was a high-profile “win” for environmentalists, the limited regulatory action that followed clearly disappoints. Breast-fed babies and fetuses continue to be exposed to BPA as nursing mothers and pregnant women pass on their exposures through canned foods. Indeed, last year, Statistics Canada reported that measurable levels of BPA were found in the urine of 91 per cent of Canadians.

Industry argues that these levels, on their own, shouldn’t worry us, because they demonstrate that the body is constantly eliminating BPA in urine. It points out that the evidence that BPA harms our health is uncertain. Just last month, for example, the U.S. Institute of Medicine acknowledged that common chemicals, including BPA and phthalates, have “biological plausibility” for causing breast cancer, but it declined to declare a causal relationship because the bulk of research has been done on animals, not humans.

As you read this, you’re probably starting to think about strategies for what’s being called “precautionary consumption” – green shopping practices undertaken to try to compensate for the fact that the regulatory system is broken.

Sure enough, social science research finds that, by and large, women bear the burden of this regulatory failure, because they’re the ones doing the household shopping and making most of their families’ consumption choices. The most privileged might even be able to buy the right containers and the fresh produce to make their own soups from scratch, but we need a system that protects everyone – not just those with the resources, time, education and knowledge to be “savvy” green shoppers.

Canadians deserve a strict law on toxic substances that requires the government to reduce exposure when substances are found to be toxic. We need a truly precautionary policy that puts people first. Although individual consumption choices are important, our control over these everyday exposures is constrained by legislation, political institutions and power relations. These are remade through collective citizen action, not individual consumer behaviour. It’s time we demanded that government get tough on toxics, for real.

Dayna Nadine Scott is an associate professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School and director of the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health (which recently released the report Sex, Gender & Chemicals: Factoring Women into Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan).