CEPA reform for breast cancer prevention

By: Jane McArthur, Toxics Program Director

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. You are no doubt well aware of breast cancer and sadly, probably know many people it has impacted. But did you know that right now we have an opportunity to change the law in Canada in ways that could prevent future breast cancers? The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA) is getting a long overdue update in Parliament. Bill S-5 was passed with amendments by the Senate in June of this year. Improvements to the bill are still needed in the House this fall.

Reform to the law by addressing key areas of Bill S-5 will strengthen protections, improve control over exposures and lead to pollution prevention. And this could change things for the people at risk in Canada and could mean fewer diagnoses of breast cancer in the future.

While Bill S-5 takes a positive step forward by introducing the right to a healthy environment for the first time in federal law, the new right needs to be strengthened to include actions Ministers will take when ambient air quality standards are exceeded. This would change things for Maria and her neighbors who live and work in the shadow of the traffic-heavy Ambassador Bridge, surrounded by industrial air pollution. Maria’s breast cancer diagnosis had her seeking a “policy that can impact mitigation of some of that risk from air pollution.”

A framework for considering the right to a healthy environment in the assessment of toxic substances is needed. Youth activist Clover is concerned about ongoing toxic exposures and suggests that “policymakers listen to Indigenous communities who already know what to do. The solutions are out there and they’re solidified and ready to put into practice.”

Samantha’s mother died of breast cancer and she lives and works among pollutants linked with the disease. Her observation that “trade needs…end up feeling more important to decision makers than protecting an individual woman from a breast cancer risk” illustrates why the right to a healthy environment should include social, health, scientific and economic factors in its application, not as reasons to limit how the right is applied. Clarifying these relevant factors in the interpretation of the right is a mechanism for breast cancer prevention.

Principles of environmental justice and intergenerational equity should apply to the entire Act. This could shift the impacts for women like Josephine, who is among the Black, Latina and Asian women targeted by toxic product manufacturers. LGBTQIA+ and gender non-conforming populations also struggle with the toxic injustice of beauty that puts them at higher risk for breast cancer. Environmental equity would recognize not everyone is a toxicologist able to conduct risk assessments.

Amendments to modernize Canada’s chemical management regulations should incorporate the right to know the chemical ingredients in products for people like Tracy who is concerned about women with breast cancer going through treatment “and all of them are completely in the dark about what could be harming them.”

Updating chemical assessments and risk management plans can tackle the problem outlined by physician Jacqueline who illustrates the need for the incorporation of new evidence such as on endocrine disrupting chemicals found in plastics and other products which “can affect the reproductive system, acting as a mimic of the natural hormones that are in our body, and predispose women to abnormalities in breast tissue and can cause cancers.”

Public requests for assessment or reassessment of a chemical or class of chemicals will honour Grant, who is among the often forgotten men who develop breast cancer, and notes all victims of the disease and their experiences and risks should be heard. Clear answers to public requests can be part of that response.

Sophia, a highly exposed woman who has twice been diagnosed with breast cancer, despite not having the traditional risk factors, knows delay is deadly. “I wish for changes now because they won’t have twenty years or forty years of waiting time.” Timeline accountability for chemical assessments is one way to ensure real impacts on real people are addressed sooner.

Toxic chemicals linked to breast cancer risk are found in items women handle every day such as bisphenols in the thermal paper used for receipts. The BPA substitute BPS can increase the aggressiveness of breast cancer, a risk for the hundreds of thousands of cashiers and other women handling them. Safer substitution of toxic chemicals must also be a part of an updated CEPA.

Expanding public access to data by strictly administering the use of the Confidential Business Information exception (CBI) under the Act will improve trust and accountability with Erica, concerned about the exposures she and her daughter face and their prospect of breast cancer, and who is critical of the lack of transparency about substances in use. She admits “I don’t know that I would ever trust something unless I knew how and what it’s made of.”

Despite the pervasive messaging and years of awareness raising, not only are many of us still in the dark on the environmental causes of breast cancer, law and policy in Canada does not do enough to protect women from exposures that can lead to breast cancer diagnoses. This Breast Cancer Awareness Month let’s raise our awareness of environmental connections, and take action for primary prevention. Modernizing CEPA through a strengthened Bill S-5 is a step in the right direction!

For more on CAPE’s CEPA Reform Campaign visit our campaign page or contact Jane McArthur, Toxics Program Director at jane@cape.ca.

Read ”Stop running from the problem: prevent breast cancer by reducing toxic chemicals” published in the Toronto Star on October 11, 2022.