2016 Spring Reports of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development

2016 Spring Reports of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

2 June 2016

Julie Gelfand
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Madam Chair, I am pleased to be here today to discuss the results of our recently completed audits. The full reports were tabled in the House of Commons last Tuesday. I am accompanied by Andrew Ferguson, Kimberley Leach and Frank Barrett.

Whether it’s about consumers deciding which product to buy or municipal planners determining where to build hospitals and schools, the federal government directly and indirectly provides funding, programs and tools to many different stakeholders, to support them in the decisions they must make.

Report 3—Chemicals in Consumer Products and Cosmetics

In the first of the three audits that we are reporting on today, we looked at how Health Canada manages risks to human health and safety posed by chemical substances used in cosmetics and household consumer products. These products range from makeup and skin creams to baby bottles, children’s jewellery and toys.

In short, we found that Health Canada is not in a position to fully assure Canadians that its product safety program is working to protect consumers.

Since the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act came into force in 2011, Health Canada has improved its oversight activities, but it is still falling short on detecting and assessing health risks. For example, we found that the Department did not assess the scope and magnitude of the risks associated with imported products purchased online, or those related to counterfeit products and cosmetics.

It’s important to understand that it is not Health Canada’s role to ensure the safety of cosmetics or consumer products before they enter the market.

Health Canada works primarily to detect and respond to health or safety risks after problems arise. Companies are responsible for following the regulations put in place by the government.

Companies are required to report health and safety incidents involving consumer products to Health Canada, but there is no requirement to report incidents involving cosmetics.

We found that Health Canada did not regularly test cosmetics to ensure that labels were correct or to check for the presence of prohibited substances. This is a problem, because labels do not disclose what’s in “parfum,” “aroma,” “fragrance,” or “flavour”. Those catch-all terms can conceal a range of potentially hazardous chemicals, and this information is not readily available to consumers.

Health Canada told us that marketing terms, such as “preservative-free,” “fragrance-free,” and “unscented”, are outside its mandate. In our view, these terms suggest health and safety benefits and may be misleading. For example, a product labelled “fragrance-free” or “unscented” may in fact contain chemicals to mask the scent.

Where consumers are expected to make informed choices and use products appropriately, reliable product information is critical. Frequently, this information is not available.

Report 1—Federal Support for Sustainable Municipal Infrastructure

Let me now turn from our households to our communities. Our second audit looked at federal programs that are intended to support the sustainability of Canadian communities.

Overall, it is not clear to what extent a decade of federal funding programs in excess of $13 billion have produced the environmental benefits they were supposed to bring.

When we looked at infrastructure projects that Infrastructure Canada has funded, under the Gas Tax Fund for example, we found that the Department did not have indicators in place to assess to what extent the money spent had resulted in cleaner air, cleaner water and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

When it comes to considering infrastructure projects for funding, we found that Infrastructure Canada had not adequately identified or managed environmental risks. The Department expected proposals for major projects to include information on environmental risks, but it did not use this information to analyze the risks of climate change, for example.

When environmental risks are not considered, projects may not be designed to minimize environmental effects or withstand the impacts of future weather events. This means that municipalities could be left facing significant unexpected costs down the road.

Infrastructure Canada informed us that it does not have a mandate to encourage innovative infrastructure projects through its project selection. This means that there is a risk that new, greener approaches may not be considered.

Report 2—Mitigating the Impacts of Severe Weather

In our final audit, we looked at what the federal government is doing to support efforts to mitigate the effects of severe weather. Overall, the federal government has not adequately supported long-term efforts to make Canada’s infrastructure more resilient to a changing climate.

Severe weather is expensive. The federal government has spent more on recovering from large-scale natural disasters over the past six years than in the preceding 39 years combined. And scientists are predicting that severe weather events are going to become more frequent and more intense.

We found that the federal government has not been successful in its efforts to encourage provinces and territories to invest in projects designed to mitigate the impacts of severe weather.

None of the existing funding programs is specifically designed to improve the resilience of Canada’s infrastructure. For example, the New Building Canada Fund supports infrastructure improvements in 14 priority areas, including disaster mitigation. The Fund is not designed to encourage provinces and territories to make disaster mitigation a priority.

The federal government could also better support the planning of resilient infrastructure through the information and tools it makes available to decision makers. We found that some data was incomplete, and some tools were obsolete. For example, engineers rely on tools to predict the probability of extreme rainfall amounts and the duration of storms when planning and designing municipal water infrastructure. Yet the data used to inform these tools has not been consistently produced since 2006.

Similarly, floodplain maps allow municipalities to better plan for future growth in areas of low-flood risk, and compensate for areas of high flood risk. National guidelines for flood hazard assessment and mapping have not been updated in 20 years. This has left the provinces and territories to manage and update their own maps. With no federal standards or guidelines, there is no consistency between jurisdictions.

With significant and ongoing investments in infrastructure across the country, resilience means a focus on building and rebuilding better.

When resiliency is built into infrastructure, it is built into communities. Those communities are then better able to meet the needs of future generations, withstand the impacts of climate change, and recover more quickly when a disaster does strike.

Madam Chair, this concludes my opening statement. We would be pleased to answer your questions.