Why the legal right to a healthy environment matters to our day-to-day realities

Environmental conditions related to climate change and other modern-day exposures are adversely impacting individual and community health. The right to a healthy environment – uncompromised by economic interests – is a right that all peoples should have. 156 UN Member states already recognize this right. And Canada needs to catch up.

CEPA, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, was initially enacted in 1988. It was last updated in 1999. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development’s 2017 review of CEPA led to a report to Parliament that included a list of 87 recommendations to strengthen CEPA. But, unfortunately, those, and other recommendations, are still not law. The first reading of Bill C-28, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act, including the right to a healthy environment on April 13, 2021, was hailed as an essential first step. But the political process is once again on hold.

To understand the importance of a federal law that enshrines the right to a healthy environment, it is helpful to dig into how chemicals and pollutants impact people in their day-to-day environments. I can give you a window into this through some of the research projects I have been a part of.

Several studies I worked on focused primarily on the relationship between cancer and environmental exposures. When I say environmental, I am referring not only to the external, outside environments but also our work environments, home environments, and even our first environment, the womb. The research examined links between exposures to air pollution, pesticides and herbicides, plastics and components of plastics, and even substances in personal care products.

Research over the course of a decade with a few thousand women in the Windsor-Essex Region in South Western Ontario found three times higher likelihood of breast cancer among women who lived and worked in farming operations and, in particular, with early life agricultural exposures. Women who worked in auto manufacturing, including plastics manufacturing, were fives times more likely to develop breast cancer. Women’s breast cancer diagnoses more than doubled in food canning operations, where the exposures included endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Among hairdressers where a mix of toxic substances is found, there were higher reports of breast cancer.

Recently, I completed research with women workers at the Ambassador Bridge border crossing between Windsor, ON, Canada and Detroit, MI, US. The bridge is the busiest border crossing in North America. More than 40,000 commuters, tourists and truck drivers carry $323 million worth of goods across the Windsor-Detroit border each day. Because of this, the Bridge environment has heavy air pollution from the truck and other vehicle traffic. It’s also located in a heavily industrialized region on the Canadian and American sides. Women workers there report a high incidence of breast cancer. However, the numbers have never been formally documented despite calls to do so.

Based on anecdotal reporting of breast cancer cases, the incidence of breast cancer seems to be about forty-seven times more elevated in the bridge workers than the comparable rates of the county. It wasn’t just breast cancer that women at the bridge reported – it was also thyroid disease, other reproductive system cancers, infertility, miscarriage, men with breast cancer and brain cancer, testicular cancer, and their children’s birth anomalies.

The people who live in neighbourhoods around the bridge and the diesel transport truck corridor – communities where many racialized peoples, people who recently migrated to Canada, international students and people living in poverty – also have higher rates of many diseases and hospitalizations.

The Canadian federal government is currently partnering in building another bridge to accommodate truck traffic. The workers and people living in the region are concerned that they are not being protected from toxic exposures, and rightly so. Ongoing development projects in this region have failed on numerous occasions to consult with community members, including first nations communities. It’s hard not to conclude when faced with these realities that people are systematically denied their right to a healthy environment.

Exposure to toxics is both a public health and environmental justice problem

As the examples above illustrate, these are both public health and environmental justice problems. We can look at it this way: the environments we live, work and play in and the exposures in these environments are not necessarily a matter of individual choice. We often frame health and environmental issues as behavioural choices, as problems of lifestyle. But this approach ignores the fact that we don’t all have access to the same lifestyle. 

Where we live, and the exposures in our neighbourhoods and even our homes are often involuntary – in other words, we can’t control them. The jobs we have and the vulnerabilities in our workplaces are often outside of our control. The power to manage these exposures lies outside the individual and within laws, regulations, policies, economic and social systems. 

When we talk about public health and justice, factors we call social and structural determinants of health (SDHs) are part of the story, including access to social services and protections, education, employment, job security, working conditions, food security, housing and basic amenities, racism, sexism, discrimination, and access to affordable health services. SDHs often reveal inequities built into our social structures.  If I cannot afford to buy food without harmful chemicals, that is a problem of justice. If I live in a house in a neighbourhood near industrial pollutants, that’s an environmental justice problem. And if I have to work in a job where toxic chemicals are part of my daily working conditions, that too is an environmental justice problem. 

Women, children, racialized and Indigenous peoples and workers are made more vulnerable by their living and working conditions. They, and everyone else, are entitled to the right to a healthy environment. For this reason, the Canadian federal government must catch up and proceed with legislative reform of the Canadian Protection Act (CEPA) to prevent exposure to toxics and pollution and recognize the right to a healthy environment.

By Jane E. McArthur, CAPE Toxics Campaign Director. The discussion in the Ecojustice hosted webinar, held on June 23, 2021, on the Right to a Healthy Environment inspired this blog post. You can watch the recording of the webinar here.