Opinion: A prescription from health professionals: strengthen Canada’s toxics law

 May 4th 2022| Published by The Hill Times

Amid the climate crisis, global plastic pollution, ubiquitous toxins, and environmental injustices, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act must evolve to protect the planet’s health and people.

As physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals, we are alarmed about increasing fractures in the foundations of health and well-being, and the all too real impacts on people’s health in Canada and across the globe.

To practise good medicine, we must be proactive in this moment of intersecting health harms and we must draw attention to one of the solutions. We offer this prescription: strengthen Canada’s toxics law.

Currently, Canada is updating the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), the country’s cornerstone environmental health law. In February, Bill S-5 to amend CEPA was introduced in the Senate, had its second reading in early March, and in April was referred to the Senate Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee.

There are still many steps before this bill can become law, so government engagement is necessary to pass a strengthened CEPA by the end of 2022.

Why does CEPA need updating?

CEPA, the legislative framework for critical environmental issues directly related to health, was last updated in 1999, a year in which almost three million people died from HIV-AIDS and, as Bill S-5 sponsor, Independent Senator Stan Kutcher pointed out in his second-reading speech, the Euro was launched. The five-year review schedule for CEPA has not been followed, and we’re left with an outdated piece of legislation inadequate to addressing current health, environmental, and social justice threats.

Sources of toxic exposure and scientific understanding of their risks have profoundly changed. Amid the climate crisis, global plastic pollution, ubiquitous toxins, and environmental injustices, CEPA must evolve to protect the planet’s health and people. This is especially true for marginalized people, including Indigenous people, women, workers, racialized and disabled people, and particular communities at risk.

The House Environment and Sustainable Development Committee’s 2017 review of CEPA produced a list of 87 recommendations to strengthen the Act. Multiple organizations have actively worked and campaigned to improve this legislation. In 2018, 500 scientists sent a letter to the prime minister arguing that “Canada’s overarching law governing pollution and toxins is outdated; it is inadequate to deal with today’s sources of pollution and toxic chemicals.”

The current science on the health impacts of pollution and toxics has been foundational in efforts to strengthen the law. Advocacy for legislative action on toxics and environmental justice has yet to yield a modernized CEPA.

Strengthening Bill S-5

Bill S-5 makes significant improvements. But it’s not quite what we need to protect the environment and human health. Recommendations for amendments have been shared with Senators and MPs, but a broader approach is required.

We all have a vital role to play in ensuring a stronger law. MPs will be critical to CEPA’s true modernization through amendments to Bill S-5 that will strengthen its purpose. Constituents can facilitate this process by contacting MPs to reinforce our message that an updated CEPA must be passed by the end of this year.

The path forward

To deliver an improved act, the bill must do several things:

  1. Provide meaningful recognition of the right to a healthy environment;
  2. Prioritize prohibition of toxic substances;
  3. Assess cumulative risks to environmental and human health;
  4. Apply timelines for assessments of toxic substances and “safer substitution;” and
  5. Create a reverse onus on business confidentiality claims thereby improving the right-to-know around toxic substances.

Sustained advocacy is necessary to get the results we need. As health professionals, we will persist with our message to prioritize the passage of a modernized CEPA bill before the end of 2022 for pollution prevention, environmental protection, and health promotion.

CEPA reform is essential for a just and green recovery. Every one of us must get the message to the government.

Jacqueline Avanthay Strus is president of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment (CANE). Dr. Joe Vipond is an emergency physician in Calgary and president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Written on behalf of the members of the boards of directors of CAPE and CANE.

Photo: Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault, pictured on Nov. 3, 2020. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade