Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts

Risks of Toxic Substances

(Chapter 2—2009 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development)

6 May 2010

Scott Vaughan
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Mr. Chair, we are pleased to be here to discuss the results of Chapter 2 of my Fall 2009 Report, Risks of Toxic Substances. I am accompanied this morning by Jim McKenzie, the Principal responsible for this audit.

In this audit, we examined 7 of 85 substances listed as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

Some of the 7 substances we examined are well-known—for example lead and mercury. Others are newer and less widely known, such as Polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, which can be as equally hazardous to the health of Canadians. These toxic substances can be found in a range of products from children’s toys to consumer electronics.

Overall, we found that Health Canada and Environment Canada have put in place or proposed a range of controls—from regulations to pollution prevention plans—that are designed to manage sources of emissions as well as mitigate the risks associated with exposure to these toxic substances.

We also found that the two departments have been measuring the actual levels of mercury, lead and other substances found in Canadians. We noted that overall levels of lead and mercury in the blood of Canadians are low, and that in the case of lead, have declined significantly in the past three decades. Nevertheless, these substances continue to pose risks to those individuals exposed to them.

This underscores a key observation of the audit: despite progress, the risks posed by toxic substances such as lead and mercury still require active management.

Mr. Chair, let me highlight four particular areas that represent significant challenges to the departments as they work to manage and mitigate the risks associated with toxic substances.

The first relates to risk management strategies. While these strategies were in place for 5 of the 7 substances we examined, they are still not in place for lead and mercury.

We recommended that integrated strategies be prepared to manage lead and mercury. We expected that such strategies would examine progress to date, set out clear objectives and priorities to achieve them, and take into account the results of ongoing scientific research. For example, the research assessing whether the level of lead that is currently considered acceptable in blood may, in fact, be too high.

The second issue deals with the capacity of departmental compliance promotion and enforcement programs. Environment Canada has put in place an approach to promoting compliance and enforcing policies and regulations that allows it to prioritize its limited resources.

The third point deals with consumer products. The audit notes that although relatively rare, risks posed by unacceptable levels of lead in toys and jewelry still poses a risk to those most vulnerable in Canadian society—our children. Other consumer products noted in the chapter include baby soothers and soft vinyl toys that contain phthalates, a substance listed as toxic in 1999 and for which control measures were only proposed in 2009.

The chapter addressed the issue of consumer product labelling for chronic hazards. Product labels are required to inform consumers of hazards associated with toxic substances, and to provide information such as safe handling instructions to avoid poisoning. One question is whether departments should go further, as do some countries under a UN initiative, to inform consumers about chronic hazards such as possible carcinogenicity.

Fourth, we recognize that the federal government is undertaking biomonitoring programs to understand the level of toxic substances found in the bodies of Canadians. Health Canada, with other federal partners, has launched several major studies such as the Canada Health Measures Survey to assess the presence of toxic substances in Canadians. The scope of this survey is expected to be expanded to include children from the age of 3 to 5 while efforts are also underway to conduct biomonitoring of First Nations. These are important initiatives that will provide important data needed to understand whether departmental control efforts are actually leading to better health.

Mr. Chair, Environment Canada and Health Canada have agreed with all our recommendations.

Your Committee may wish to focus its attention on the adequacy of departmental action plans; the overall approach to managing the risks associated with toxic substances in consumer products; departmental compliance, promotion and enforcement efforts including the capacity to sustain these activities given the expected growth in toxic substances and related control measures; and plans to respond to information coming from the national biomonitoring programs.

Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the Committee may have. Thank you.