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Committee report recommends major reform of Parliament's control of toxic substances

If the recommendations of a Parliamentary committee are adopted by the House of Commons, Canada will move closer to enshrining environmental rights, substituting safer alternatives, and strengthening protection of vulnerable populations in the regulation of toxic substances.

The recommendations are contained in a 162-page report released by the House Standing Environment Committee following a year long review of Canada's primary law on toxic substances, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

In the first review by Parliament of the law in a decade, the committee found that the right to a healthy environment should be a focal point of the law's reform, that procedures should be in place to effectuate that substantive right, and environmental protection must be achieved in a non-discriminatory manner.

The committee also recommended that the law be amended to require mandatory assessment of alternatives to existing toxic substances and substitution of safer alternatives. The committee heard evidence from witnesses that the rationale for such an approach is driven in part by increases in the release to the environment in recent years of substances that the government itself has deemed toxic.

Concern that toxic substances inordinately impact vulnerable populations also prompted the committee to recommend that Parliament ensure that regulation of toxic substances takes into account effects on such populations and marginalized communities, including from aggregate, cumulative and other exposures. Such a recommendation would tie into the committee's view that there should be non-discrimination, or environmental justice, in measures to protect the public from environmental hazards.

These areas of reform are just a few of the more than 80 recommendations produced by the committee. Many of the committee's recommendations take aim at the extent to which the law should focus on risk as a basis for regulation, where determining the extent of exposure of a substance is key to deciding whether it will be regulated, or should instead focus on the inherent hazardousness of a substance as a basis for action irrespective of any determinations on levels of exposure. The latter approach would bring Canada's law more in line with the approach employed by the European Union and was viewed by many witnesses before the committee, apart from those appearing for industry, as a sounder basis for preventive action to protect human health and the environment.

How the federal government and eventually Parliament responds to the committee's report bears close scrutiny in the months ahead.