Intervenor: vol. 27, no. 1 - 2, January - June 2002

Why Aren't We Winning The Toxic Battle?: Executive Director's Report

It is difficult not to hear or read some media report that talks about someone being affected by toxic substances. Farmers being contaminated by leaking landfills, children affected by pesticides, groundwater affected by agricultural run-off, families affected by industrial air pollution, high levels of PCBs and dioxins in breast milk, and so on. Of course, this problem is not new. Rachel Carson, in her early 1960s seminal book, Silent Spring, recognized the human health and environmental health impacts of toxic substances, and in particular, DDT. Forty years later Sandra Steingraber in Living Downstream delivered an equally potent message about toxic substances.How much has been achieved in the past forty years? Whether one is a cynic or an optimist, there is only one correct answer - not enough. This is most disturbing since there has been literally an explosion of scientific information on the link between toxic substances and the impacts on human health and the environment. These links provide the evidentiary relationship between toxic substances and cancer incidence, effects on developmental, reproductive and endocrine systems and the relationship with respect to behavioural development. This issue of the Intervenor gives some insight on some of these issues (see articles in Related Information below). One challenge is that toxic substances are pervasive in our lives. Many of our current agricultural and industrial processes depend on the use of some of these very problematic substances. Some of these processes generate toxic substances as by-products such as dioxins and PCBs. Often, the very products of industry, like chlorinated plastics, are the basis for many of our problems. Another challenge is that decision-makers are often paralyzed to take action to restrict the use of toxic substances or seek to eliminate them altogether. On one hand, they are informed of the toxic effects of these processes and products on human health and the environment. On the other hand, they are heavily lobbied by industrial interests constantly alleging the absence of absolute proof of harm and the alleged economic consequences of any action, even seemingly modest steps forward. It is of little wonder why neither the federal government nor provincial governments have comprehensive toxic reduction strategies in place. There are programs directed to some substances in some applications (see article in Related Information below). Many of these programs respond to known problems and often as a result of public outcry. There is hope that things are changing. Internationally, the twelve nastiest substances have been slated for elimination through the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). The rules of the game are slowly changing. There is a significant momentum towards following the "precautionary principle" indicating a need for change in the threshold of evidence needed to act (see article in Related Information below). There is also much more accountability in terms of identifying who is releasing what and in what amount through such mechanisms as the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI). The real hope, however, is the fact that the public is now more engaged in this issue than ever before. They are beginning to understand the depth of the problem and the long record of inaction. Both internationally and within Canada, community groups are taking on the fight against toxic substances. The growing momentum is evident at CELA through its daily contact with the public. Who would have believed a few years ago that major grocery chains would now be heavily marketing organic products? Or, that some municipalities are severely restricting the use of pesticides on municipal properties and are trying to stop the cosmetic use of pesticides within their borders? Who would have guessed that the members of the general public would be questioning the use of pressure treated wood, plastics and household cleaners? One can only wonder when political decision-makers and industrial leaders will recognize that the times are changing and embrace, rather than resist, clean production thinking.____________________________Paul Mudoon is a lawyer at CELA