THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY, THE ENVIRONMENT AND NATURAL RESOURCES
OTTAWA, Thursday, May 12, 2022
The Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources met by videoconference this day at 9:02 a.m. [ET] to study Bill S-5, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act.
Senator Paul J. Massicotte (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: My name is Paul Massicotte, I am a senator from Quebec, and I am the chair of the committee.
Today, we are conducting a hybrid meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources.
Before we begin, I’d like to remind senators and witnesses to please keep your microphone muted at all times, unless recognized by name by the chair. When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. For senators participating via Zoom, I will ask you to use the “raise hand” feature in order to be recognized. For those attending the meeting in person, I will ask you to please signal to the clerk if you want to be recognized.
I would like to remind honourable senators that in the interest of obtaining as much information as possible, we have composed panels of three. I will do my best to get to everyone who wants to put a question to our witnesses. To do so, I ask senators to try and keep their questions and preambles brief. These instructions also apply to our experts.
Each senator will be able to ask one question and a supplementary question or a follow-up to their first. I would also ask that you specify to whom your question is addressed.
I would also like to remind our witnesses that they have a total of five minutes to make their opening remarks.
Now, I would like to introduce the members of the committee who are participating in this meeting: Senator Margaret Dawn Anderson, from the Northwest Territories; Senator David Arnot, from Saskatchewan; Senator Claude Carignan, P.C., from Quebec; Senator Rosa Galvez, from Quebec; Senator Clément Gignac, from Quebec; Senator Mary Jane McCallum, from Manitoba; Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne, from Quebec; Senator Dennis Glen Patterson, from Nunavut; Senator Judith Seidman, from Quebec; Senator Karen Sorensen, from Alberta; Senator Josée Verner, P.C, from Quebec.
I would also like to note the presence of the sponsor of this bill, Senator Stan Kutcher, from Nova Scotia.
I wish to welcome all of you, and the viewers across the country who may be watching.
Today, we are continuing our examination of Bill S-5, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act.
For our first panel, we welcome, from Breast Cancer Action Quebec, Jennifer Beeman, Director General, and Lise Parent, Biologist and endocrine disruptor specialist. We also welcome, from Women’s Healthy Environments Network, Kanisha Acharya-Patel, Executive Director, and we welcome, as an individual, Trevor Drummer, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia.
Welcome to you all and thank you for being with us.
Jennifer Beeman, Director General, Breast Cancer Action Quebec: Thank you very much, senators, for the invitation to share our comments on Bill S-5.
Breast Cancer Action Quebec’s mission is the prevention of breast cancer with a particular concern for the role of toxic substances in increasing breast cancer risk. In our advocacy work, strong chemical regulations that reduce exposures for all populations are the only effective and fair way of reducing the serious harms to health caused by toxic chemicals. We work closely with a coalition of groups on toxics, including the David Suzuki Foundation, and we sincerely regret that they have not been invited as witnesses given their important work on CEPA, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and particularly the right to a healthy environment. In addition, our work on CEPA is supported by a wide range of women’s groups and health groups in Quebec.
As both the minister and industry representatives have emphasized, under CEPA we are in a risk-based system to regulate toxic substances, and Bill S-5 does not change that. Risk is evaluated as the inherent toxicity of a chemical in relation to the potential exposure of the general population. The assumption is that the larger the exposure, the more dangerous the risk and that we can establish a general threshold of safe exposure. However, all recent developments in science have shown that these assumptions regarding exposure do not hold. In particular, EDCs, or endocrine-disrupting chemicals, often do not correspond to a linear dose-response curve. In many cases, very minute exposures can be far more dangerous and have more damaging health effects than larger exposures. My colleague Ms. Parent can answer all your questions on EDCs.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals have different effects depending on the time of exposure and the sex of the person. Exposures of particular concern include in utero exposures, babies and young children, preadolescence, adolescence, pregnancy and menopause. Further, different populations have different overall toxic exposures with racialized communities bearing the brunt of high exposures. The premise that we can establish a general threshold that will protect everyone simply is no longer a valid assumption.
Both the minister and industry representatives have mentioned bisphenol A, or BPA, an estrogenic endocrine disrupter linked to increased breast cancer risk, among many, many other health risks. There are serious concerns about in utero exposures to BPA, yet BPA has only been banned from baby bottles — not from thermal paper, the lining of food cans, plastic bottles containing water or other beverages or any of the many other sources of exposure. There is significant evidence that BPA replacements bisphenol S and bisphenol F, known as BPS and BPF, are equally toxic. A label saying “BPA-free” does not mean there are no toxic exposures from other bisphenols in that product.
To remain in a risk-based regulatory system for toxic substances, we need much stronger regulations and the political will to apply them vigorously. The amendments proposed by Bill S-5 are a start but need to go further. We must prioritize prohibiting toxic substances of high concern, establish clear timelines for risk assessment and management of toxic chemicals and ensure that toxic chemicals are actually replaced by safer ones.
For risk assessments, we need more class-based risk assessments such as for the over 5,000 PFAS, or forever chemicals, to restrict whole groups of similar dangerous chemicals at once.
The public needs access to information on materials and ingredients in products. Restrictions are needed on companies’ claims of confidential business information to get around divulging the presence of toxic chemicals. Establishing the right to a healthy environment is long past due. However, the bill states that environmental rights would be balanced against economic interests. This balancing could pull the rug out from under our right to a healthy environment.
Industry might think we have the gold standard of chemical regulations because the system works for them. We do not have the gold standard of chemical regulations to protect human health and the environment. Other jurisdictions are moving much more vigorously on combatting toxic chemical exposures for human health and the environment. Europe generally and France in particular are at the forefront with strong initiatives.
Canada needs to catch up, and it can — we can — but we need to strengthen Bill S-5 to do so. Thank you for your time, and we’re happy to answer all your questions.
The Chair: Thank you. Ms. Parent, do you have any opening remarks?
Lise Parent, Biologist and endocrine disruptor specialist, Breast Cancer Action Quebec: I will answer questions instead, if I may.
Kanisha Acharya-Patel, Executive Director, Women’s Healthy Environments Network: Good morning, everybody. It’s a pleasure to be here today to discuss Bill S-5. My name is Kanisha Acharya-Patel, and I am the Executive Director of the Women’s Healthy Environments Network, or WHEN.
WHEN has developed a set of 27 recommendations that are contained in our brief, but for the purposes of this presentation, I’m going to be focusing on our recommendations for strengthening the risk assessment provisions of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, or CEPA, specifically the role of the minister under section 45, information gathering under section 68, consulting with stakeholders under section 73 and applying a precautionary approach under section 76.
Our research and recommendations are informed by the federal department Women and Gender Equality Canada, or WAGE, and their Gender-based Analysis Plus, or GBA+, framework, which promotes an intersectional analysis. The WAGE GBA+ framework investigates and attempts to account for differences in outcomes of federal initiatives on diverse groups of women, men and gender-diverse people based on their sex, gender, ethnicity, income and other intersecting identity factors. This is highly applicable in the context of chemicals management where one’s identity factors, either alone or in tandem, can increase exposure or sensitivity to toxic substances.
The current risk assessment and risk management processes under CEPA do not adequately consider how an individual’s identity factors, such as sex, gender, race, income or geography, can intersect and increase one’s exposure to toxic substances or their vulnerability to adverse health effects from such exposures. For example, physiological differences between male and female bodies result in females being inherently more susceptible to adverse health effects from exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, especially during critical windows of vulnerability such as puberty or pregnancy.
Socio-environmental differences between groups of people, such as geographic location, can result in increased exposures for populations living in closer proximity to industrial pollution, and these populations are often also low-income and/or racialized communities, which further embeds them in positions of vulnerability.
The current CEPA approach uses aggregate data, meaning data that is supposedly representative of the general population, to estimate exposures and health risks. This incorrectly assumes that environmental risks are uniformly distributed across the general population. As one’s identity factors can result in increased exposures or sensitivity when compared to the general population, there is a pressing need for the generation and collection of biomonitoring data and epidemiological research that is disaggregated based on identity factors.
WHEN recommends that when conducting research and studies relating to the toxicity of a substance or the role of the substance in health problems, said research must relate to vulnerable populations and must include the collection of data that is disaggregated by identity factors in order to identify health inequities that aggregated data may conceal.
According to Women and Gender Equality Canada, the collection of disaggregated data is necessary in order to properly conduct Gender-based Analysis Plus, and WAGE and Statistics Canada have recently developed a disaggregated data action plan to identify and fill knowledge gaps. This could be a useful source of disaggregated data, which can be used to identify sub-populations who are at greater risk of harm from toxic exposures and to subsequently take steps to mitigate this risk.
Contrary to the current risk assessment provisions that speak to the consideration of available information, imposing an active duty on the minister to generate and collect data and research will allow for more comprehensive risk assessments and subsequent outcomes that are inclusive and protective of vulnerable populations.
It is also important to note that, according to its mandate, Women and Gender Equality Canada is responsible for leading the implementation of GBA+ across federal departments by sharing research, policy expertise, expert advice and strategic support in the development of policies, programs and legislation. This suggests that WAGE could have a larger role in ensuring that the risk assessment processes under CEPA are considerate of health inequities being faced by vulnerable populations.
The current approach for estimating exposure under CEPA uses standard default receptor characteristics, which are essentially characteristics of a hypothetical person who is exposed to a toxic substance, and this person is supposed to be representative of the general population. This approach results in outcomes that are not protective of sub-populations who are at greater risk than the general population.
WHEN therefore recommends that for the purposes of considering the toxicity of a substance or the ability of a substance to impact a vulnerable population, the relevant minister must conduct a human health risk assessment using a human receptor with predefined physiological and socio-environmental characteristics that are representative of a maximally exposed person. This approach uses disaggregated data to identify and select characteristics that could result in higher or more frequent exposures, adverse health responses at lower doses or more severe health effects relative to the general population.
The hypothetical human receptor would be assumed to have any and all of these characteristics so as to ensure that risks are not under-predicted. This approach errs on the side of precaution by ensuring that the toxic substances are regulated to protect everyone, including the most vulnerable communities. This is aligned with the government’s duty under section 2(1) of CEPA to protect environmental and human health, apply a precautionary approach and prevent pollution.
While Bill S-5 puts forth significant amendments relating to the protection of vulnerable populations, its effectiveness is hindered by the discretionary nature of the provisions and the lack of specificity regarding exactly how vulnerable populations will be considered in decision making. However, the bill provides an opportunity for the government to operationalize its commitment to protecting vulnerable populations by implementing an intersectional approach to chemical risk assessments with oversight by Women and Gender Equality Canada.
Thank you for your time and consideration, and I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.
Trevor Dummer, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia, as an individual: Good morning, my name is Dr. Trevor Dummer, and I’m an associate professor in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, where I also hold the Canadian Cancer Society chair in cancer primary prevention. My interests and research are specifically in how the environment causes cancer and how we can work better to actually reduce our cancer risk and cancer incidence.
The revised CEPA clearly states that every individual has the right to a healthy environment. I completely agree. I believe this is a fundamental right of all individuals and all human beings. The key question is: How do we meet this goal? I have a few comments and thoughts on how the bill can be improved to achieve this.
I think a healthy environment relates to many factors, but substances harmful to health are central to this. In this respect, I think it’s important that we recognize that harmful chemicals can either be naturally occurring environmental contaminants or human-made and human-activity-introduced environmental contaminants. This distinction is important because of the way we approach monitoring, assessing and mitigating these different types of contaminants. It’s important that through enforcement, which I believe is the backbone of good environmental protection, we focus on those that pollute, and we deal most appropriately with chemicals and substances that are harmful to health. When we do this, I believe it’s fundamental we adopt a precautionary approach to chemicals in the environment.
It’s equally important that we deal with naturally occurring substances; for example, things like arsenic and radon are well-established carcinogens that occur in geographical hotspots across Canada and they are not dealt with appropriately under current regulations. Hence, I think targeting actions that deal with hotspots of exposure and risk are crucial.
I would also like to highlight two points that concern the requirement to conduct research studies and improve monitoring activities, relating particularly to the requirement for biomonitoring studies. I believe these are essential to achieving CEPA’s stated aims, and these are things we need to improve and enhance.
First, I would like to stress the importance of continually assessing the burden and impact of multiple and cumulative exposures on human health. We need what we would now call in science an exposomics approach. This is an assessment that quantifies multiple exposures and multiple exposure pathways that doesn’t deal with single substances in isolation, which is a more traditional risk assessment approach. We would facilitate this by improving our research infrastructure in Canada, particularly in the area of biomonitoring. In this I’m referring in particular to the infrastructure for actually collecting and collating different bio samples from individuals across Canada, not necessarily the research that is already well established for actually identifying those particular chemicals and substances in individuals.
This leads me to my final point. There are limitations over our current biomonitoring capabilities in Canada. The Canadian Health Measures Survey, or CHMS, is important, but it does not currently include Indigenous communities, and bio samples that get collected under the CHMS are limited to blood and urine. These are not necessarily the best samples for all types of chemicals, and particularly not for identifying biomarkers of longer-term exposure. It would not be enough to simply expand CHMS to more substances or other populations.
What we need is a system that can capture more broadly the Canadian populations and all individuals. We need longitudinal measures on a number of individuals, such as repeat assessments and repeat measures of chemical exposure across the same individuals, so we can make comparisons over time appropriately. We also need systems that better capture multiple exposures and that can be linked to other environmental and health information so we can take a holistic and much more exposomics-centric approach to risk assessment. I don’t think this actually means we need to build new infrastructure, or new surveillance systems as such; I think we have some existing systems that we can enhance.
For example, the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health, or CanPath, is Canada’s largest longitudinal population health cohort of 300,000 or more Canadians across Canada. This could be a longitudinal resource for biomonitoring exposures in individuals with appropriate support and funding. And there are other cohorts and other infrastructure across Canada that can be utilized for this purpose. Hence, I don’t think we are necessarily required to create new resources, but we need to support, enhance and utilize much better the resources we already have.
We should also consider how our research infrastructure can help target known exposures or particular priority populations, and, in this aspect, I think it’s particularly important that we work with Indigenous groups to ensure that Indigenous communities are included in an appropriate way in this work, respecting, of course, the First Nations principles of OCAP in terms of ownership, control, access and possession of data and information for First Nations people.
I would be happy to take questions and send in a brief summary of what I just said, if that would be of interest and help to the committee. Thank you very much.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Dummer. It is much appreciated. We will begin our questions by recognizing the sponsor of the bill, Senator Kutcher.
Senator Kutcher: Thank you. My question is primarily for Professor Dummer and Professor Parent. Thank you very much for everyone’s testimony. I’m familiar with some of the research work of Professors Dummer and Parent.
Health Canada currently does toxicology assessments and biomonitoring. The Canada Health Measures Survey is really the major tool, but it has been pointed out that it has incredibly limited capacity, it’s periodic, cross-sectional and with very small sample sizes. We don’t have a national environmental health research infrastructure that is programmatic in nature. We do have studies, like the CanPath study, but we don’t have a single one.
You mentioned the need for longitudinal multigenerational cohorts and biobanks, and people also talk about toxicogenomics. Open data sets would allow for causal inference analysis. Bill S-5 will increase the demands for this kind of work dramatically, even in its current state. What does Canada need to do to be able to properly conduct toxicology research and biomonitoring, and how should this be done? Should it be done by increasing the scientific capacity in Health Canada? Should it be creating national networks that deal with environmental health research? What are your thoughts on these issues?
Mr. Dummer: Thank you. I think those are really important questions. We do have an infrastructure for these sorts of things, but you’re quite right: something like CHMS is cross-sectional. As the other speakers have mentioned as well, you need to incorporate all populations. Obviously, we need to do sampling. You can’t test and sample everybody. We need to make sure we have appropriate sampling from across diverse populations in Canada. That’s the first step.
I’m not advocating for going off and creating whole new cohorts. I think you referred to the CanPath cohort. That’s good for adults as is the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, which is for older adults. Its purpose is for looking at issues associated with aging in older adults. There is also the Mirex study, which has children. In terms of what we are lacking — and you asked whether there is a network — I think we need some sort of institute or some sort of network. It could be within the Canadian Institutes of Health Research — CIHR — or it could be in a number of different places, but it could bring these together.
We do the science very well. I think some of the infrastructure to conduct that science is more piecemeal, and that comes down to funding. Research grants don’t fund the collection of individuals for biomonitoring studies. We have to utilize what we already have; we have good resources already, but you’re quite right that the demand will be even higher. The science is there to do that, but I do think we need some sort of institute within the CIHR or potentially linked with Health Canada or something. But it should be for science, organized along those bases to actually bring together some of these existing infrastructures.
Senator Kutcher: Does Professor Parent want to weigh in on this?
Ms. Parent: I completely agree with Dr. Dummer. There is currently a research centre in Quebec that operates across Canada and internationally, called the Intersectoral Centre for Endocrine Disruptor Analysis (ICEDA). This centre analyzes endocrine disruptors and their impact on human health and the environment. We are therefore seeing the emergence of research clusters. Indeed, funding needs to be found to study all aspects and to address the challenges of the impact of pollutants on human health and the environment.
On the other hand, given that the burden of proof is on governments, I believe that governments should be given more resources to follow up and have more appropriate knowledge on the state of affairs and the effect of chemicals on human health, not to mention the environment.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: My question is for Ms. Beeman and Ms. Parent. I know you are bilingual; you can, of course, answer in the language of your choice.
I am also interested in endocrine disruptors. You seem to be saying that Europe is ahead of us in terms of banning and limiting substances like BPA in the production of chemicals. I would like you to draw a comparison to that effect.
We now talk about vulnerable populations. Does this mean that pregnant women should be considered part of the vulnerable populations, given the risks to the fetus?
Ms. Beeman: I would invite Lise to answer the question, as she is familiar with what is happening in France, and I can add to it.
Ms. Parent: As far as regulations are concerned, in France and in Europe, we are talking about a regulation called REACH. This is another way of approaching the problems of pesticide management. Even more, there are programs that were adopted by the National Assembly, and then France is very active and is a precursor in Europe on the issue of endocrine disruptors, among other things, because as early as 2014, it set up the first national strategy on endocrine disruptors that was adopted by the French government. Then this was also done by Sweden and Denmark; this is a first on a global scale.
What does this strategy do, exactly? It was created to reduce public and environmental exposure to endocrine disruptors. It’s not a very complicated system, it’s about promoting green innovation in the business world, strengthening the capacity to analyze and evaluate substances, bringing the subject to the European level to have measures that will be common, and then, above all and always, improving public information, both at home and in the workplace. This led to the creation of the second strategy on endocrine disruptors in 2018, which was also adopted by the European Commission. This is all based on the One Health program, a one health approach, which rests on the idea that ecosystem health is inseparable from human and animal health. Reducing the presence of endocrine disruptors in the environment requires the collection of data on the impregnation of different environments in order to act at source.
There are all sorts of other measures that are being taken, which may seem simple, but they allow us to communicate, to raise awareness and to make sure that everyone is aware of what is happening. There is, for example, the Zero Phthalates operation which has been organized in several cities in France — in Paris, in Strasbourg — and which aims to take three centimetres of a hair from the municipal representatives and to analyze the different metabolisms of phthalates. It is an operation that allows us to see that everyone — even if we took samples here around the table — has 100 to 300 chemical substances in their bodies, including several endocrine disruptors; these are substances that did not exist 50 to 60 years ago. So we are the first generation to be affected.
I hope that answers your question. I’ll let Ms. Beeman tell you about vulnerability.
Ms. Beeman: With regard to the pregnancy period specifically, both for the pregnant person and for in utero exposures, it is clear that this constitutes a vulnerable population.
All the steps forward in addressing vulnerable populations are really fundamental, because it varies so much, depending on the social and economic or well as physiological dimensions. Some populations have much higher levels of vulnerability. So, absolutely, pregnancy is part of the vulnerability factors.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: I have a brief follow-up question.
You mentioned PBAs in particular. Do you consider that they should be completely banned, and more importantly, is there an alternative, because you seem to be saying that the other products are just as toxic?
Ms. Beeman: We at Breast Cancer Action Quebec very often turn to the Endocrine Society in the United States for information on endocrine disruptors. The society has just released a study on BPA entitled Update on the Health Effects of Bisphenol A: Overwelming Evidence of Harm.
The risk assessment associated with BPAs needs to be redone and we need to look at the substitutes that are used. It is an estrogenic endocrine disruptor that affects so many aspects of human development, diseases and conditions. What’s interesting is to see the industries that are moving forward and replacing it with safe substitutions; for example, in thermal paper, which depends on BPA, but is very often replaced by BPS. There are options out there. There are industries that are taking it very seriously and finding an alternative, and it is possible. This is really an issue: The risk assessment of BPA needs to be revisited, because the exposure is too high and the impact is too severe.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: Could you, madam, send us the study you mentioned? Could we have the reference?
Ms. Beeman: It would be my pleasure to send you our BPA file.
Senator Galvez: I have a question for Ms. Beeman and one for Ms. Acharya-Patel.
The government has decided to keep the risk assessment approach. If we were to propose another approach here, it would be judged out of scope. We cannot do that.
On the other hand, it has taken us 20 years to review this piece of legislation. I hope you realize how important it is that we make the best amendments that we can because who knows when it’s going to be reviewed again.
Ms. Beeman, for the benefit of my colleagues, I would like you to talk about some statistics on the health impacts. What are we losing in capacities and abilities when we are exposed to these substances, like the forever chemicals and the endocrine disrupters that you talked about?
Ms. Beeman: That’s a very big question. I completely agree with the importance of this bill. We’re staying in the system, but Bill S-5 needs to be strengthened. Your work is tremendously important and we’re very honoured. It is so important to all the groups. There are so many groups that are concerned with this work, so thank you for taking it on with the rigour that you are.
In terms of health impacts, there have been numerous evaluations on the huge impact. We’re particularly concerned with endocrine disrupters. I’m sure Professor Dummer has many resources in terms of the health impacts of exposures to these chemicals and whether they’re economic. A large study was done — I don’t have the exact reference but I can find it afterwards — on the economic and neurological impact on in utero exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in terms of ADHD, the potential links to autism and a whole range of other neurological impacts and the economic consequences of people who, for example, can’t hold jobs or who are dependent on services. For all the ways this plays out, economic impacts aren’t just on industry but are also borne by individuals. That is just one example of very concrete impacts.
For some reason, because these aren’t contagious illnesses — these are chronic illnesses and conditions — we don’t react with the same alarm with which we really need to react. We endure them; families cope. We deal with breast cancer; we consider it a chronic illness now, and yet so many women face it. Breast cancer is one of the hormone-dependent cancers associated with endocrine-disrupting chemicals, as is uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, thyroid cancer, prostate cancer and testicular cancer. And the medical system copes; individuals cope. The Canadian Cancer Society does great work, but we shouldn’t have to face this on the levels that we’re facing it and yet we don’t respond.
In France, with all the work they’ve done on endocrine-disrupting chemicals, there is a whole social movement called the Villes et Territoires Sans Perturbateurs Endocriniens that has been taken up by the population. There is a charter for it that has been signed by well over 100 cities. Paris has signed. There is a movement behind this and a real indignation that hasn’t been discovered here. So we hope with this work that Bill S-5 can really serve to educate the population as well as we talk about it, hopefully more publicly, on what this aims to prevent.
Senator Galvez: Thank you, Ms. Beeman.
Ms. Acharya-Patel, we have to use these risk assessments, and you are right that we are not considering the exposure to vulnerable populations. We are using a general receptor, a general person. I don’t fit in that generalization. I’m not a male of 60 kilograms and White, so I don’t fit in that.
I will challenge you that there is a lot of toxicological information that has been developed by scientists around the world. However, we don’t have enough information on the cumulative impacts and on the vulnerabilities of these specific populations. If we want to take a precautionary approach, shouldn’t we consider the worst-case scenario, and shouldn’t we focus on the specific expertise for specific projects to really assess the cumulative impacts during this risk assessment? And what risk is considered acceptable today under the current law? Thank you.
Ms. Acharya-Patel: Thank you so much for your question. Regarding cumulative impacts, I completely agree that it is an incredible problem that is facing vulnerable populations, who, due to their various identity factors, encounter various different exposures from different sources. And as someone who identifies with multiple identity factors that render them more vulnerable and experiences compounded vulnerability, that therefore embeds them in their positions of vulnerability.
In terms of risk assessments, one of the main points WHEN is promoting is the information gathering. While biomonitoring data needs to be collected and epidemiological research needs to be collected that does focus on women and other vulnerable populations, there does need to be increased funding and increased generation of further data and further research. The reality of the situation is that if we’re using the science to inform the risk assessments, the science needs to be inclusive of all populations, which it currently is not.
If we wanted to adopt a precautionary approach, the only truly precautionary approach would be implementing a reverse-onus approach where the burden would be on industry to show that their products are safe or to show that they have done the appropriate research in making sure that there are no safer alternatives available. However, as we are staying in the risk-based paradigm, we need to focus on ensuring that the actual risk-assessment process is inclusive of vulnerable populations.
In order to assist the government in identifying what areas need to be focused on for investigating vulnerable populations, in recommendation 22, we recommend that we amend the definition of vulnerable populations to specifically list populations that are vulnerable, including infants, children, or adolescents, and women, including pregnant women and women in critical windows of vulnerability. This is a very important point because women, due to their physiological differences, often have different toxicity end points than men, and this toxicity end point is even further reduced during critical windows of vulnerability, which start as early as during puberty.
Senator Seidman: Thank you very much to our witnesses this morning. You have given us a lot to think about really seriously, including the whole issue around the risk of endocrine metabolic toxins. It is quite mind-boggling to imagine all the evidence that has been accumulated over the years and yet we still have not dealt with it in a very definitive way. You have already talked about that at some length, so I would like to ask a different question.
We heard witness testimony last week about the importance of safe substitution being incorporated in Bill S-5. One of the recommendations of the Women’s Healthy Environments Network, among risk mitigation measures to control the presence of substances in the environment, is safe substitution — that is, the development and use of safer alternatives that should be mandated in CEPA.
I’d like to ask the Women’s Healthy Environments Network to expand on this a bit, and also our other witnesses have mentioned this as well. Thank you.
Ms. Acharya-Patel: I’m sorry, senator, would you mind repeating the area of focus for the question?
Senator Seidman: Yes, it’s safe substitution. You have a recommendation among your risk mitigation measures. Could you please expand on that? Section 68 deals with this to some extent, but is it adequate? Thank you.
Ms. Acharya-Patel: Mandating safe substitution was also recommended by the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, or ENVI, in their 2017 recommendations on improving CEPA. This demonstrates that there is legislative intent to improve the risk management processes to ensure that substances that are of high concern are at least being considered to ensure that safer alternatives, if available, will be used.
However, the emphasis in the current act on relying only on available information results in a passive approach to doing the research into safe substitution. WHEN recommends that there be an active duty on the government, who currently bears the burden of showing the safety of chemical substances. We recommend that the safe substitution be mandatory and that, when demonstrating how safe substitution was considered, the minister be required to provide reasoning as to the research that was conducted, how this research relates to vulnerable populations, how this research was collected, and how this research will be used to apply a weight-of-evidence approach and a precautionary approach, which are both required under the act.
Senator Seidman: If you look at section 68, it states that “For the purpose of assessing whether a substance is toxic or is capable of becoming toxic . . . .” And then it lists a whole series of things, and one of the things it lists is that the minister may collect data without limiting the development and use of alternatives to the substance.
I would like to know whether that covers it. I don’t think it does. It’s a pretty general statement. How would one cover what we’re asking?
Ms. Acharya-Patel: Under section 68, the language that the “Minister may” assigns a very discretionary provision to the minister, which means it is completely up to the minister to decide which priorities to focus on, and if the minister decides that the substance isn’t toxic enough, the exposure isn’t high enough or the substance would be of concern, then the minister can skip over the step of looking into safer alternatives.
So WHEN would recommend that there be explicit requirements under section 68(a), which would be the requirement to consider Gender-based Analysis Plus or specifically the manner by which the intersection of sex and gender with other identity factors can impact exposure or susceptibility.
This goes into the four GBA+ requirements, which would include gathering data, consultation and examining vulnerability considerations, and then using this information to inform the mitigation measures. These mitigation measures should include mandatory informed substitution, which is the goal of eliminating hazardous substances or substituting them with safer alternatives.
It is important to note the difference between informed substitution and regrettable substitution. Regrettable substitution is exactly what my colleague Ms. Beeman was talking about when you replace a toxic substance with a substance that is of equal or higher concern. This may be useful in showing that you did the investigation into possible safer alternatives, but without research demonstrating that this alternative is actually safer for the health of populations, including our most vulnerable populations, the efficacy of substitution is questionable.
Senator Arnot: My question is for Ms. Acharya-Patel and builds on the questions by Senator Galvez and Senator Seidman.
You’re saying that using aggregated data is inappropriate, and you need to use disaggregated data for specific vulnerable populations. And you’re looking at a standard where the human health assessment characteristics would be for the most vulnerable hypothetical person.
I acknowledge your comprehensive submission and your 27 recommendations. I would like you to amplify any issues that you haven’t had a chance to, concerning why ministry officials are resistant to some of these ideas, which seem to be common sense, and why you believe that resistance is completely misplaced.
Ms. Acharya-Patel: In my opinion, the way that CEPA is run and managed is highly discretionary, and this is a problem that has plagued pretty much all environmental legislation in Canada where the provisions give a lot of discretion to the minister. This discretion includes balancing the goals of the environmental legislation with other factors, including economic interests. Decades of data shows that the prioritization of economic interests over environmental interests always prevails. This is why there is a need to decrease the amount of discretion that is being provided to the minister under CEPA.
In order to reduce discretion, the language in the bill must be amended from words such as “may” to “must” or from “the minister can” to “the minister shall” to ensure that these considerations are being meaningfully considered. There needs to be further specificity as to what “considering vulnerable populations” even means. That is where I believe it is important to specify that data and research will be collected that is disaggregated based on vulnerable populations.
In the interests of sharing best practices, the human health risk assessment guidance comes from the British Columbia Guidance for Prospective Human Health Risk Assessment, which assesses substances, and it offers a lot of guidance in how the Government of Canada can implement a human health risk assessment that is meaningfully considerate of the most vulnerable populations, by ensuring that the hypothetical person being protected in the risk assessment is the person who is experiencing the most intersectional ranges of vulnerabilities.
Senator Arnot: I want to give the witness one further chance to amplify anything she hasn’t had a chance to address.
Ms. Acharya-Patel: Thank you. I actually would like to speak to something I didn’t get to mention to Senator Galvez.
We recommend in recommendation 21 that the definition of “acceptable risk” be added to CEPA under section 3(1). This is because, otherwise, the language of “acceptable risk” can be used in many different ways without explaining the definition. It can be used to basically say that any risk is acceptable, which is the current process.
We recommend that “acceptable risk” be defined this way:
. . . there is reasonable certainty that no harm to human health, future generations, vulnerable populations or the environment will result from exposure to or the manufacturing, processing, import, use or release of a substance . . .
It’s important that determining where “acceptable risk” falls is based on intersectional data and intersectional research.
Senator Anderson: My question is for Ms. Acharya-Patel.
You spoke about the Gender-based Analysis Plus framework, or GBA+. I haven’t heard any discussion around the environmental racism or contaminated sites where Indigenous, racialized and low-income Canadians live and probing a link between race, socio-economic status and the exposure to environmental risk.
Given that First Nations, Métis and Inuit people stand a probability of living to the age of 75, which is much lower than non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, can you tell me what work is being done around identifying environmental racism?
Ms. Acharya-Patel: Thank you for this question. I would like to reiterate that there may be some other panellists who are specialists in the information around Indigenous health and Indigenous populations.
However, as you can see, in Appendix A of my submission, I did do a research case study of Chemical Valley, which is near Sarnia, and is negatively affecting the health of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation.
In terms of environmental racism, in my opinion, the primary aspect of vulnerability is geography. This would involve ensuring that the definition of a “pollution hot spot” is added to CEPA. A pollution hot spot is essentially defined as a geographic location where emissions of substances to air, discharges to water or deposits to land from specific sources may expose local populations to elevated health risks when considered individually or cumulatively from other nearby sources.
If the data that is collected is being disaggregated based on geographic location, we will be able to identify what geographic locations are dealing with specifically higher exposures or higher adverse health effects, and this data can be used to inform mitigation measures to address these risks.
Specifically, there could be an opportunity for the minister to require pollution prevention plans by industrial facilities in the area to lower their emissions to a level that would be relative to a community that is farther from industrial pollution, in order to use an equitable approach to pollution.
Senator Anderson: Can you tell me if this applies to historical or abandoned sites? The problem we’re running into is there are abandoned sites and there is no accountability for it. What would be the process for such a site?
Ms. Acharya-Patel: Honestly, I don’t know, but I would be happy to do some further research and get back to you on this. As of right now, there is no requirement in CEPA to consider how geographic location impacts vulnerable populations and how locations should be monitored to account for differences in pollution between areas.
The Chair: I have a question for Ms. Acharya-Patel. When we see all the recommendations you made — and it’s the same thing with Ms. Beeman — they make a lot of sense to us, but we’re not experts.
What is the response when you deal with Health Canada? How do they respond to your comments? Senator Arnot raised this issue. Is there an openness to changing opinions, or are they very defensive? How do they respond? Why not? Could you comment on that, please?
Ms. Acharya-Patel: I think there is definitely openness in Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada to making some of these changes. The exact thing you said about the expert advice is a problem plaguing the improvement of CEPA, and it reflects the importance of consulting with diverse stakeholders when strengthening this bill. This would include women’s health groups, Indigenous health groups and different sources of evidence and research in order to make an informed decision. This is aligned with the weight-of-evidence approach that is mandated under CEPA.
I would say that Health Canada is taking steps to try to improve their assessment processes under CEPA. As of right now, they are actually running several policy labs to consult with different groups on how to improve supply chain transparency, for example, or hazard labelling.
I think a lot of the problems for Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada comes from the burden that is being put on them to do all the research and all the data collection, without any responsibility on industry. To that end, I would suggest that, in terms of acquiring data, industry should play some sort of role in doing the research and investigation, and then Health Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Women and Gender Equality Canada can step in to identify data or research gaps, take steps to fill those gaps and then use this comprehensive evidence package to inform the risk-assessment process.
Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada must be careful to ensure that they are meaningfully applying a precautionary approach to ensure that substances of high concern are not being put forward until there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will be caused.
Ms. Beeman: I would add that the issue is, very clearly, as many people have already mentioned, the need for more resources. Both Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada are going to need additional resources and expertise to take on the new responsibilities that they will have to look at all these questions. It’s complex, but the expertise exists in Canada. But both departments will need resources for this.
The Chair: We thank our witnesses and experts for the advice and knowledge they shared with us.
Thank you to Ms. Jennifer Beeman, Executive Director, Breast Cancer Action Quebec and Lise Parent, Biologist and endocrine disruptor expert, and Ms. Kanisha Acharya-Patella of the Women’s Healthy Environments Network. Thanks to Dr. Trevor Dummer, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, who appeared as an individual.
Thank you very much to all of you. Your knowledge will obviously be seriously considered. We appreciated it quite a lot. Thank you.
For our second panel, we welcome Meg Sears, Chair of Prevent Cancer Now, and, from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Dr. Ojistoh Horn, Physician and Member of the Board. We also welcome, as an individual, Dr. Jeff Brook, Assistant Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
Welcome, everyone, and thank you for accepting our invitation.
Meg Sears, Chair, Prevent Cancer Now: Thank you for your kind invitation to assist in strengthening the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. I’m Dr. Meg Sears, a scientist speaking for Prevent Cancer Now. We are a national organization aiming to stop cancer before it starts, focusing on exposures that contribute to cancer and other chronic diseases. This includes many substances regulated under CEPA.
We have long engaged in consultations with science-based analyses for chemicals management plans and CEPA review. We welcome Bill S-5’s introduction of many amendments, including the right to a healthy environment. The current amendments help to bring CEPA into the 2010s, but increases in environmentally linked diseases, declining biodiversity, climate chaos and novel exposures require further provisions for 2022 and beyond.
We should look to Europe for progressive chemicals regulation. On April 25, the European Commission published its chemicals road map for sustainability. We believe that what is unacceptable in Europe should be the same in Canada. For example, Canada restricts chemicals based on persistence, carcinogenicity, mutagenicity and reproductive toxicity. However, Europe also assesses endocrine disrupters and substances toxic to the immune, nervous and respiratory systems, or to specific organs. Broadening regulatory end points is not only scientifically sound, it is necessary to use end points from new methodologies if we want to reduce animal testing.
Europe is addressing groups of substances. There can be hundreds of similar substances for restricted chemicals, and we must avoid ones that are similarly toxic. For example, the recent Canadian Health Measures Survey reported decreasing levels of the plastic bisphenol A in biomonitoring, but did not assess other bisphenol endocrine disrupters that are commonly used or similarly harmful.
Alternatives assessment is meant to identify best practices and these toxic options. A climate lens could address life-cycle impacts, and considering essentiality, as in Europe, would add doing without as a feasible option. A substitution principle framework could also help to operationalize responses to initiatives, such as restricting plastic items.
When the Government of Canada permits a new substance to enter the market, it is working on the hypothesis that the substance will be safe. The approval of a new substance based on need, but with limited safety data is, in essence, still an experiment, so there is an ethical need for precaution and monitoring of this hypothesis for early corrective actions if needed. Canada has little capacity to identify links between environmental exposures and subsequent disease or disability. We discuss in our brief considerations for data needs and research at arm’s length from industry and government.
We also propose a new, rapidly increasing bioactive environmental agent to include in Bill S-5. We join other groups and hundreds of scientists and doctors around the world concerned about radiofrequency radiation used in wireless telecommunications. Surprisingly, the environmental effects of this pollution are not assessed, monitored or regulated under Canadian law or researched by Environment and Climate Change Canada. Radiofrequency radiation is toxic to every species adequately studied, and it can magnify toxicities of chemicals. It represents a large gap in environmental protection.
We recommend amending CEPA’s section 44 for study of this issue, while noting there is a tremendous substitute. Fibre optic cable emits no radiofrequency radiation, yet has higher bandwidth, is faster, more secure, more resilient and uses less energy than wireless infrastructure.
In conclusion, while we support Bill S-5, we recommend further strengthening CEPA to meet the challenges of the 2020s, including adopting European priorities to protect human health and the environment in Canada. We also support amendments advanced by the Canadian Environmental Law Association and others related to our priorities. Thank you for your hard work for a healthy future. We want to help, and I welcome your questions.
The Chair: Thank you very much. Earlier, I forgot to introduce Jane McArthur, Toxics Campaign Director for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. My apologies.
Dr. Ojistoh Horn, Physician and Member of the CAPE Board, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment: Good morning. Thank you, honourable members of the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources. I am bear clan from the Haudenosaunee communities of Kahnawake and Akwesasne.
I have been working as a community-based physician for 14 years, and am a board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, also known as CAPE. Jane McArthur, the Toxics Campaign Director of CAPE, is here today with me as a witness. Today, I would like to speak to you about the Canadian Environmental Protection Act currently under review.
To begin, I would draw your attention to the combined submission by Ecojustice, CAPE, Environmental Defence, the David Suzuki Foundation and Breast Cancer Action Quebec, which outlines six points addressing gaps in the current legislation, which have been highlighted in previous submissions: the right to a healthier environment; the prohibition of toxins of particular concern; the assessment of cumulative risks to the environment and human health; the creation of clear timelines for assessing substances deemed toxic and integrating a safer substitution in the Chemicals Management Plan; and the implementation of protocols that improve transparency with respect to the assessment of substances. At this point, I will describe the regulatory and capacity gaps that also need to be addressed.
In 2012, four female lawyers from Saskatchewan drew widespread attention to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the Canadian Navigable Waters Act, mobilizing the Idle No More movement. I learned three things. First, Indigenous communities and lands are not as well protected by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act as other communities in Canada. This has been called a regulatory gap and describes how provincial governments are not able to carry out the enforcement of this law on Crown and Indigenous lands, which are generally under federal control.
Second, in what is described as a capacity gap, our communities do not have the human and logistical resources to support the tools required to train, plan, test, monitor and enforce environmental protection standards. Loss of access to polluted lands and waters, the impacts of the pollution on health and the inability to hold polluters accountable are some harms that make it difficult to thrive in and around our communities.
As a grassroots Indigenous physician working in my community, I realize the long-term effects of persistent toxins in the land, water, air, soil, fish, plants and wildlife around our homes. In 1979, a Maclean’s cover described Cornwall Island, a district of Akwesasne, as an island unfit for man or beast. Surrounded by six industrial sites, many chemicals, including PAHs, PCBs, dioxins, fluorine and mercury were found pervasive in the environment. After measurements of our hair, saliva, urine, breast milk, blood and skin were taken, research demonstrated that the chemicals were pervasive in our bodies.
The environment was deemed to be harmful to health and the Haudenosaunee people from Akwesasne were told they could no longer eat the fish from their waters, the produce from their gardens, the fruit from their trees, the meat from their cows and pigs, the medicines from the forests, the honey from their combs and the milk from their mothers’ breasts. The first breastfed babies would get the highest load of PCBs. The people were told that in about 20 years they would start seeing people developing unusual illnesses.
So the children who played in the effluent of the industries, covering their bodies and pretending they were mudmen, are now in their forties, fifties and sixties. Two decades later, I see a high number of people diagnosed with advanced cancers, autoimmune illnesses, depression and other mood disorders and disorders of cognition and the nervous system. The story of Akwesasne is seen across Canada. Our people have generally had poorly coordinated and under-resourced primary care. We have a disproportionate burden of environmental risk factors that have made us very sick.
As physicians, we are also expected to work under the principles of evidence-based medicine. This is problematic because many Indigenous people, and other disadvantaged people disproportionately affected by environmental pollution, are not typically included in the development of this evidence. I therefore work under the auspices of evidence-informed and evidence-generating medicine.
Many Indigenous cultures emphasize the responsibility of being stewards of the earth, to keep the earth healthy so the future generations of all parts of creation can survive and thrive. Let us work together, each doing our own specific roles to fulfill our collective responsibility to the future. You must consider filling all the gaps outlined in our submission to your Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources. Thank you very much.
The Chair: Thank you very much. Ms. McArthur, do you want to add something briefly?
Jane McArthur, Toxics Campaign Director, Association of Physicians for the Environment: Thank you so much for asking. No, Dr. Horn has represented CAPE and our perspectives well. Thank you.
Jeff Brook, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, as an individual: Good morning. It is an honour to address the Senate committee today. I’m speaking from Midland, Ontario, which is located on the land of the traditional and treaty territory of the Anishinabek people. I’m an assistant professor with the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and previously was a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada working closely on environmental health with scientists and Health Canada.
I started and lead the Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium, CANUE, and the environmental component of the CHILD Cohort Study which has been following Canadian children since their birth over 10 years ago. I also work closely on air pollution issues for the Fort McKay First Nation in the heart of the oil sands.
I would like to commend the Senate standing committee for taking on the critical task of strengthening CEPA. This regulation has and continues to be a far-reaching instrument for environmental and human health protection. Many of the proposed changes will be welcome improvements with potential to enhance protection.
Of course, protection requires enforcement and meaningful timelines are often at odds with the motives of polluters or others that profit from the status quo. The most prudent measures, including adopting a precautionary principle, may even be at odds with the timelines of other countries which make it more difficult for a small country like Canada to go it alone. But Canada should continue to show international leadership. I have four points I would like to make to the committee today, all of which pertain to the protection of human health.
A risk-based approach to management continues to be the only way forward. Over the years, while CEPA has been in place, scientific knowledge has increased dramatically. It is clearly one of the reasons the act requires updating. Arguably, though, the advance in science has led to new questions about how risk is measured, as we have heard from others today, and what we’re talking about in terms of risks. What is it we value and are trying to protect and avoid? Carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, neurotoxicity and disruption of reproduction and endocrine systems are serious concerns. However, more and more, we know that the tools to measure these are lacking, particularly in light of low, long-term exposures — conditions that Canadians increasingly face.
Other tools are available, and their role in defining toxicity risk needs to be considered in a refined CEPA. For example, with a rapidly evolving world of omics, how do we classify the risk of subtle changes in gene expression as seen through proteomics or metabolomics for which we don’t yet know the long-term implications? What about mixtures of chemicals? Answers to these questions are complex, so CEPA must be nimble enough to keep up with new thinking. Clearly, these measures of biological response apply to all organisms.
Looking closely at the macro level of individuals and populations, which is arguably the only way to assess the risk of low, long-term exposure, Canada and much of the developed world has a chronic disease epidemic. The more researchers look, the more chemical exposures are found to play a potential role. There needs to be a clear approach through CEPA for recognizing chronic disease risk and giving it proper weight, risk assessment and regulation.
Consider the huge role a risk factor such as hypertension plays in [Technical difficulties] disease. It is among the top three risk factors for premature mortality or disability-adjusted life years in Canada and worldwide. Chemical exposures such as phthalates are linked to an increase in hypertension. This is just one chemical among others we have heard about today. Air pollution, namely PM2.5, is linked to hypertension as well. Air pollution and some chemicals are linked to the incidence of Type 2 diabetes and childhood asthma, other common and increasingly chronic diseases.
A strengthened CEPA will need a well-thought-out way to consider new measures of risk capitalizing on today’s knowledge. Risk development of chronic disease is important and some type of research is needed to develop a viable approach.
My second point is the lack of capacity for surveillance and research. The community in Canada is small and fragmented. This is not serving us well. It will take time to build, and throwing money at it is not enough. There must be sustained emphasis on developing highly qualified personnel through training at all levels of education. This begins by giving signals to the academic community. Looking south of the border, the National Institutes of Health have the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, or NIEHS. While there can always be more research, the quality, pace and quantity of research in the U.S. is enviable. Much knowledge and expertise has been built around the NIEHS programs, leading to significant capacity.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research have 13 institutes and environmental risk is relevant to many, if not all, of them. But with limited resources, it is not a priority in any of them. Understanding those risks also demands attention be paid to exposure assessment. There is not a single institute in the CIHR or the other tri-councils where exposure has a home. It is long past time that CIHR and NSERC come together to create a permanent, well-funded program on environmental health on par with other high-priority programs. Much of the important work has been done by federal ministries, as we have heard today. They must be part of such a program motivated by the strengthened CEPA, given one of its mandates is policy-relevant science.
Point three has to do with tools for research and monitoring. In terms of chemicals in the environment, which includes outdoor and indoor spaces, some infrastructure exists. Outdoor air and water are monitored for some chemicals, and at some temporal regularity. Regular biomonitoring, like that conducted through the Canadian Health Measures Survey, is undertaken, but it is a question of how much these data are used and how well they fit our needs.
For research on risk and identifying safe exposures, a major gap is the ability to undertake longitudinal population-representative studies. This means rich data on exposures, phenotypes and confounders in populations that provide consent for health research, such as using provincial health records at the least. There needs to be stable resources to maintain cohorts that cut across the full life course from prenatal to old age. CEPA must recognize the importance of such surveillance. This is piecemeal in Canada and continues to hinder generational knowledge, as CEPA needs a generation of work through populations with consent. These are critical infrastructures for advancing the science and ensuring people’s rights to a healthy environment are respected.
Fourth, geographically targeted regulations need to deal with pollution hot spots. That can strengthen CEPA and help to ensure people’s rights are respected. I believe we all know that this issue often manifests in environmental injustices or racism. Canada’s Indigenous populations are often one of the most vulnerable populations, as we just heard. But they are not alone. A strengthened CEPA needs to be clear about when action is required as a priority and not only more research.
The impacted people, while it might be a small population, can’t be sacrificial in the name of cost or economic gain. How will CEPA move forward in mandating action, enforcement and timelines in these cases? The existence of environmental justice must be acknowledged and prioritized in CEPA to truly give equal rights regardless of how complex the issue and the history could be.
Thank you for your attention. I’m happy to answer any questions as well as I can.
The Chair: Thank you.
Senator Patterson: My question is for Dr. Sears.
You said in your comments that, with respect to ambient radiofrequency radiation, the full health and environmental effects of this ambient radiofrequency radiation are not assessed, monitored or regulated under any Canadian law. I did a quick search and saw that Health Canada has issued guidelines on exposure limits referred to as Safety Code 6. However, I’m guessing that, because you’re asking us to amend CEPA to include further research and study, you feel these guidelines are inadequate. Could you please explain why?
Ms. Sears: Thank you for the question. Safety Code 6 applies to human exposures, and it’s based upon six-minute exposure times. There have been concerns that Safety Code 6 may not be protective of human health, but I’m putting that aside right now because when we looked at the regulatory framework for birds, bees and various insects, every kind of biota apart from humans is being affected by the radiofrequency radiation. There is no assessment, and this was confirmed by Environment and Climate Change Canada. They’re not doing any research on this. So, we provided the Senate a white paper specifically on this issue.
There are regulations. There is the Radiation Emitting Devices Act. That act and the regulations under it actually refer to CEPA and the Species at Risk Act and other environmental legislation, which is all completely silent on this issue. There is this recognition that there should be some kind of environmental protection for non-human species, but it’s an empty basket. There is nothing there at all.
In 2018, The Lancet Planetary Health published research showing that the ambient exposures — the peak exposures, which are kind of like the bullets out of the gun, so they are important — have gone up by a factor of a quintillion — that’s a one with 18 zeros after it. It’s unimaginable how much this radiation has increased, and the radiation can also work along with chemicals. It can magnify the effects of chemical toxicities. So while we are seeing rapidly decreasing populations of insects, birds and other small wildlife, and we’re ascribing that to insecticides and chemicals, it’s quite probable that radiofrequency radiation is an important contributor to what we’re actually seeing in terms of biodiversity loss.
Senator Patterson: It’s very interesting to me that a six-minute exposure under Safety Code 6 does not at all reflect the reality that many of our last-mile connections in communities are wireless with near-constant exposure.
Dr. Sears, you mentioned plants, animals and insects. Could you provide the committee with data on the harmful effects these radiofrequencies have on plants and animals, including insects?
Ms. Sears: Well, within the white paper there is a reference to a very large review. For instance, some of the frequencies tend to affect insects much more severely because the wavelength is similar to the size of the insect. There is resonance, so certainly the insect’s behaviour is changed. Insects die if they are overexposed but are yet underneath the radiofrequency levels allowed under Safety Code 6. Another concern is that in Safety Code 6, if you have an antenna, then there is a distance, because we are only concerned about the people. But that doesn’t protect the animals and insects that are much closer to this infrastructure.
Senator Patterson: What about trees?
Ms. Sears: There is research showing that trees start to die on the side closer to the antenna, and then the entire tree can slowly die. This has been seen internationally in all the countries where they have been doing the research. We’re seeing these effects on trees, birds, bees and every species that has been adequately studied in ambient environments in the natural world — so not necessarily in labs or lab studies — including at levels much lower than the Safety Code 6 levels.
There are also effects that have been seen in insects and birds that are not seen in people necessarily because of the difference in physiology.
Senator Kutcher: Thank you to all the witnesses. I must share with our committee members that I’m getting the uneasy feeling that expogenomic science is outstripping the ability of our legislation to keep up.
I have questions for Dr. Brook and then Dr. Sears. Witnesses have told us about an inadequate national capacity for biomonitoring cross-generational impacts of substances that is inadequate in the long term and for vulnerable groups, as well as biobanking and the inability to have data to do causal inference analysis, which is so important for suggesting causality.
Bill S-5 will add additional demands to a system that is already teetering. Can you both give some specific recommendations to this committee that might help drive Canada to create the sorely needed and robust research capacity to deal with the issues at hand? I would invite the other witnesses to comment, as well.
Mr. Brook: Thank you, senator, for the question. I think you have interpreted it right in terms of limited capacity in these areas, and it’s also been discussed in terms of the federal ministries and what they are doing and how approachable they are. That is completely true, but they are certainly also overwhelmed.
As I pointed out, it’s not just about throwing money at it today. There isn’t the talent and knowledge base to work in these areas. So it needs to begin with the training of the right expertise and with showing that there is sustained interest in this effort and its value.
As I pointed out, I think it needs to come from more recognition of the discipline of environmental health, exposure science and using exposure science for these very important policy-related applied science questions. So I would say it needs to come from some better development of environmental health in the CIHR.
I myself developed CANUE through a five-year limited program that CIHR put in place on environment and health — a signature initiative. That was it. That was the time they brought them together. After that, it was done. So time and time again, proposals that want to do environmental health research are turned away at CIHR or NSERC because they fall between the cracks. There needs to be a broader multi-council effort to raise up this field, start training the right people and start creating the resources for the very costly aspects of biomonitoring to be able to move this forward. So there is not a quick fix, but it has to start with the right signals to those coming up now in the training.
Senator Kutcher: Dr. Sears, could I hear your opinion on that?
Ms. Sears: Thank you very much for the question.
I totally agree with what Dr. Brook says. I once was fortunate to receive a CIHR grant for research on toxic metals. Yes, it was a one-year extravaganza where they actually put out a research request, but it was impossible to follow up on. So it did happen for some reasons unknown to me, but it’s not sustained at all.
We have a lot of people working in their own silos based out of hospitals and so on who have some kinds of expertise, but we need to have that national push for training and the resources to be able to collect over a long period of time.
The other side of this is being approached in Europe because they actually have a goal to reduce the amount of chemicals and the diversity of chemicals that are going into their environment. They see this as a climate imperative and also a public health imperative because when you look at the numbers of chemicals and the numbers of variables, it becomes almost intractable because there’s so much uncertainty. They’re trying to simplify the system so it’s more manageable from a toxicity point of view and a research point of view, and they have much greater capacity.
Senator Galvez: My question is for Dr. Sears and Dr. Horn.
In talking with so many scientists about Bill S-5, I think there is a consensus that this bill, even though it is presented as using a precautionary approach, in reality, the precautionary approach is very weak. It’s mostly about abatement of pollution, so allowing the pollution to exist and then attenuating it. This has also been mentioned with respect to starting with the hypothesis that a compound is good, and then the government has the burden to prove the contrary.
Right now, clause 3 in Bill S-5 says it:
. . . applies the precautionary principle, which provides that the lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation if there are threats of serious environmental damage . . .
But the courts have already said that they give value and more weight to the precautionary approach in their decisions, saying that it shouldn’t be cost effective and that we should put more emphasis on the precautionary and on the protection of health.
My question to you is this: Is that cost-effectiveness principle in there acceptable to you? Thank you.
Ms. Sears: Thank you very much. This has been a bone of contention for quite a while because the cost effectiveness applies to the industry. “Can I make this plastic product with a different type of plastic, and is it not too expensive?” That’s kind of the envelope for cost effectiveness. But we’re just coming through a pandemic. We know how much it costs for people to be sick. Canada is undermining its potential with chronic diseases that originate from before a child is even born. Our health care, with one case of cancer, would surely balance out the cost of a better water bottle. The cost effectiveness is not properly operationalized. It’s very narrow for the industry, but it does not take into account the costs for society and costs to the government.
Senator Galvez: Thank you.
Dr. Horn: I can only speak from the perspective of a community-based physician. As I said in my preamble, we often have to work with the principles of evidence-based medicine, and a lot of Indigenous health is not involved in the creation of that evidence. Evidence-based medicine is wonderful if your population fits the evidence and was part of the criteria that made that evidence, but we are never part of that.
When I use evidence-based medicine, I’m actually missing a lot of very early disease because people are too young and they don’t fit that evidence. Because of the lack of primary care in many of our communities, our people wait a long time and they have very pronounced disease before we can see it, and then often it’s too late. When I ask for certain tests, I am not allowed to look in a certain direction, so they don’t get covered because it’s not within the evidence.
Also, we don’t have a very clear description of how to approach the evaluation surveillance of these chemicals in our bodies from the medical schools. This is something we are looking at through CAPE to see how we can teach our frontline workers — the doctors who are seeing our people on the ground in these populations — how to actually measure this in our people, instead of doing it from a research point of view but from a primary care and secondary care point of view.
This is the approach that we’re using from CAPE because that is actually our purview as physicians in Canada.
Mr. Brook: This is a very important thing. Dr. Sears mentioned the weighing of the costs to society. Somehow, even the costs to future generations need to be considered in there. That’s very difficult. Often we say we will do best practices within reasonable costs. However, that’s just too ambiguous, in my opinion, and there are many ways for games to be played, to be frank, about delaying action on that while costs are debated.
If the question is whether it is really important that we strengthen the language around what it means to be cost effective in preventing pollution, yes, absolutely, it needs to be put in there and specified because, at this point in time, it can just delay action for long time periods. That is not helping with progress.
I could go on, but I am totally supportive of your question and your point of view, Senator Galvez.
Senator Galvez: Thank you.
Senator McCallum: My question is for Dr. Horn.
I completely relate to what you have presented. My office works with Indigenous people all across the land. Regarding your statement on land now unfit for men or fish, the toxins pervasive in our bodies and that the first breastfed get the major toxins, those are very disturbing statements.
The bill adds a new duty for the ministers to consider vulnerable populations and cumulative effects when assessing a substance’s potential to be toxic or to become toxic. The ministers must consider available information regarding vulnerable populations and cumulative effects when conducting and interpreting the results of certain risk assessments under CEPA.
In your view, when you look at the situation that you’re working under, what is the best way to implement these two new considerations? And have you identified any concerns with this approach?
Dr. Horn: One of the biggest concerns with this approach is it requires a Western model of looking at data. Indigenous people who have been working on the lands since time immemorial have a unique perspective on the land. It is observational and scientific. Unfortunately, those views have not been considered equal to the scientific method, and so often our narrative and our stories have been delegitimized and not listened to.
We have been talking about environmental problems for a long time, but our voices have not been encouraged or listened to. Now there is a broadening awareness of this lack of information in the dialogue, and now we’re able to talk about it, which is really exciting. But I do think that most of the research that exists in our communities is in the minds and in the memories of the traditional people who are on the land.
We really need to figure out how to create the trusting environment for our people to share this information so we can start to put resources exactly where they need to be rather than putting them in places where it might not be as effective. I think it’s more cost effective to go right to the source, particularly in our communities, and that would be with our traditional people.
Senator McCallum: The term “vulnerable” is quoted throughout here. Do you think that term needs to be expanded? Is it the right term? Some people have come forward with the term “people under threat” simply because when you see people as vulnerable, it’s a deficit, I think.
Dr. Horn: When I look at the word “vulnerability,” what it really means to me is an inability to respond to stress, whether it’s chronic or acute stress. When you’re vulnerable, you cannot respond well because of a number of different problems: history, epigenetics, the founder effect, the social problems, the current problems and the current economic and environmental stresses. We are all rendered, in many populations, unable to respond to new stresses. To me, that word “vulnerable” is actually quite good because it encompasses different stresses on a people and on an individual.
The earth has lost her resilience, and that’s why we’re seeing climate change. She has lost her ability to have those buffers that protected the earth and allowed her to respond to stresses. So now we have lost the acid-based balance of the ability for the earth to be able to respond to stress. We have been, as humans, the anthropogenic stress to this earth. I think this goes from the macro to the micro level. “Vulnerable” is a good word.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: I want to thank all the witnesses for their criticisms of Bill S-5. Many of these criticisms — such as those regarding our research shortcomings — are somewhat outside the bill and cannot be fixed with a simple stroke of the pen.
As we have to finish this study soon and propose amendments, what are your priorities? Obviously, there is the famous right to a healthy environment, which is a recognized principle; you probably have ideas on this. Do you have any priorities that could be found within the bill that would require changes or amendments that would be in order?
The Chair: To whom is this question addressed?
Senator Miville-Dechêne: To Mr. Brook and Dr. Horn; indeed, to any witnesses who wish to respond.
Mr. Brook: I’ll give you one priority, and it would have to do with mandated regular reporting to Canadian decision makers and Canadian people. There is some language in there about more reporting and responsibilities of various ministers, but I think that needs to be tightened up substantially in terms of what reporting involves and how frequently it should be done so that we’re all fully aware of the progress that’s being made or the lack of progress that’s being made. That would entail, from there on, that much more attention be paid to resources because then we’ll more clearly see gaps. That’s one suggestion I would have.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: Could you be specific on where in the bill who reports to whom?
Mr. Brook: Really early on in some of the simple interpretations of the bill I saw language about the reporting by the health minister and the environment minister, but again there are questions about better definitions, like “cost” and “vulnerability.” I agree with Dr. Horn about “vulnerability” being a good word, but I agree that its definition, as she offered, could be clarified. These are still somewhat ambiguous terms, and maybe that’s good by design, but ambiguity can lead to various interpretations.
Dr. Horn: This is such a large issue, but I think at the root of it you’re trying to create a plan. You’re trying to make a strategic plan for all of Canada to follow, so this is a huge endeavour. It is massive and has to do with all levels, including the things that I’ve said: the medical schools, our institutions that actually see the people on the ground and measure their health and the environmental people who measure the health of our waters and our fish and our wildlife.
This is so far-reaching. There is not one thing you can do, except to acknowledge that all of these things need to be done, including following the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because that does look at the relationship with the land and improves health because of that. This is something that would support that.
Ms. McArthur: Thank you for the question. I would agree with what Dr. Horn has just said.
In the joint submission CAPE made with the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Breast Cancer Action Quebec and Environmental Defence, we have outlined five specific areas of the bill with specific amendments that we believe are well within the scope of this bill. I would point you to our joint submission for more detail, but I would note that we have suggested amendments specifically around the right to a healthy environment, particularly removing the balancing clause, which would undermine the right in and of itself. We are also looking to prioritize an amendment around the prohibition of toxic substances. We are concerned that the term “highest risk” is an undefined term and that this would leave it open for arguments that other substances of high risk would continue to be used, so that’s an amendment we would like to see.
As far as cumulative effects, we want to ensure that we are evaluating cumulative effects in a way that is a step forward and that we’re requiring safer substitutions, not regrettable substitutions.
Timelines is another area where we have made amendment recommendations, as well as confidential business information. I know it was noted in the earlier session, as well as now, that a reverse-onus system for confidential business information would be a first step to improving the right-to-know regime around toxic substances. Again, thank you for the question and we’re happy to provide more detail on the submission and those five specific amendments.
Senator Arnot: My first question is to Ms. Sears. You’ve identified in your white paper a clear gap that needs to be occupied. It seems to me that you’re fighting a battle where if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist with respect to electromagnetic pollution and radiofrequency radiation. I happen to know that in Saskatchewan, SaskTel, a Crown corporation, has blanketed the province in fibre optics in a huge investment for the future.
Are there telecommunications stakeholders that are fighting against your proposed amendment? Are you seeing any resistance from that group? And with respect to the ministry, are you seeing any resistance to your proposed amendments from them, and, if so, are they talking about anything other than a lack of resources and lack of capacity?
Ms. Sears: We have not done a lot of publicity on this, so we have not seen direct responses from the industry.
As you mentioned, in Saskatchewan, there are large organizations that are really focusing on using fibre optics for exactly the reasons we put forward, particularly on the security issues and so on, which is beyond the scope of this legislation.
Actually, a lot of telecommunications experts are very keen on stopping a crazy technological race with a huge amount of redundancy and so on and sticking to what is, by far, a superior technological solution. I think that the only applications where people are saying it’s very important are in very remote areas where it would be quite difficult to get fibre optics placed. But even in Canada’s North, the Government of Canada is placing fibre optics, for example, along the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to the Far North. It is actually being used. But not using fibre optics is posing a big environmental risk that is completely off the radar, if you would excuse the pun.
Senator Arnot: Dr. Horn, you talked about Idle No More and Indigenous lands, raising some issues, particularly with respect to Indigenous lands being polluted. It seems to me that this is in contravention of the treaty and the treaty relationship, particularly in the numbered treaties. Are these principles of mutual benefit, mutual respect and mutual protection being abrogated by the Crown? And is there a breach of duty by the Crown pursuant to the treaty relationship that is being ignored?
Dr. Horn: I think we have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. The regulatory gap poses a lot of opportunities for loopholes, particularly in combination with the Canadian Navigable Waters Act. If you are downstream from any industries, then it becomes a grey zone, so I would say it would be case-by-case.
Of course, our lands should be a lot wider, but they have been defined as being quite restrictive. There are a lot of loopholes, and it has to do with where our lands, in the new way of looking at Canada, start and stop, what industries have been placed just outside of those lines and what kind of legislation exists to protect our lands where we live. I can’t answer much more than that. I’m sorry.
Senator Arnot: Thank you.
Senator Seidman: It seems to me this morning that we have heard witnesses allude to this growing, overburdening and ever-increasing amount of information with CEPA and the kinds of needs it will create. So how do we ensure that we receive, collect, analyze and report? I see that Prevent Cancer Now — that would be Ms. Sears — in its white paper, talks about developing capacity for data collection and analysis and how this is a failure. We know that it is a failure in Health Canada, for example, in many ways, which I won’t get into here.
Ms. Sears, I would like you to say a few words about how you would propose we would remedy this in this particular piece of legislation. Thank you.
Ms. Sears: Thank you very much. I actually think that Dr. Brook has spelled that out quite well in terms of needing to strengthen what we already have in terms of, for instance, the Canadian Health Measures Survey. There are models from the U.S. where they do have a lot more data.
We also don’t have the timeline data, for instance. We don’t have access to high-quality data on cancer incidence over time in different areas with different populations. With Prevent Cancer Now, and also with researchers at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, we did explore some of these options. For instance, there is a national group for primary care physicians who would be interested in piloting and developing an environmental health exposure questionnaire that could be implemented within primary care. There are researchers at the University of Toronto Environmental Health and Safety department that have looked at that.
There are a lot of different ways that you can figure out what people have been exposed to, you can take samples to find out what’s inside their body and you can look at the effects in clinical and biomonitoring terms. There are a lot of streams and I think you would have to develop this framework further, apart from how we and Dr. Brook have summarized it, formally, with a group of experts to scope that out as an initial first step under CIHR.
Senator Seidman: I wouldn’t mind hearing from Professor Brook in a very specific way about this particular legislation, and if there is some way to ensure that we build that capacity.
Mr. Brook: Thank you for allowing me to comment. I previously mentioned building the capacity through training and developing the expertise because, as Dr. Sears says, there is information that can be gathered, but interpreting the information is where there is a logjam. I also want to elaborate a bit on that training because I did not mention — but as Dr. Horn has mentioned very well — the capacity of practising physicians to be knowledgeable about environmental risks and be able to communicate to their patients about environmental risks or do the necessary tests to do that.
There is much we can do in partnership with the medical community to raise awareness of the issue and to help gather information from people.
To your question about capacity, as I said, throwing money at it is not ideal. Just telling a federal ministry to deal with it within their existing budget will never be a success. We have seen quite a bit of progress in specific initiatives, like the Chemicals Management Plan that ran for a number of years with ambitious goals. Those sorts of things need to be redoubled. We need greater flexibility to partner with the academic community in Canada.
Our challenge, of course, is that Canada is a small country, and this issue is much bigger than just us. There always needs to be some thought as to who our partner countries are and how Canada might play a certain role in that and how we continue to be the experts worldwide but while borrowing from all others, together. There needs to be some thought about how we partner with other developed countries, for example, to come together to become a stronger whole in this area.
Interpretation is a key thing. That means when the reporting comes, it’s just not a table of numbers, but there needs to be real, meaningful interpretation behind this information. That requires the expertise and the resources, too.
The Chair: Thank you very much.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: I have just a small point. After Senator Galvez asked her question, I checked clause 3. There is a significant translation problem there. In English — you’re absolutely right, Senator Galvez — it’s “cost-effective measures.” But in French it reads “mesures effectives,” which absolutely does not have the same sense. Obviously, we want to know the intent of the government. Did we start with French and translate into English or vice versa? We may need clarification on that.
The Chair: That is a good point.
Senator Galvez: That is a very good point. Thank you. Excellent point.
The Chair: I want to thank our witnesses who were kind enough to share their knowledge with us and to make recommendations. It has been very useful and very substantive. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
(The committee adjourned.)