Tens of thousands of hazardous chemicals flood the global market daily. We don’t fully know how most of them are affecting human health and the environment.
Scientific research has demonstrated, though, that widespread dispersion is causing significant health problems, including a “silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity” — that is, they’re affecting human nervous systems throughout the lives of those exposed, even before birth. Exposure can result in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, cancer, reproductive and immune system harm and more.
The chemicals we rely on in everyday life are also causing “catastrophic” declines in bird and pollinator populations, among others.
Globalized trade and supply chains make it difficult to map the range of toxic substances that manufactured products may contain. With multiple levels of subcontracting across continents and legal protections for confidential business information, it’s often difficult to know exactly what many commodities are made of, where they originated and what hazards they contain. Many multinational firms are unable to thoroughly trace their supply chains.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily — are used in a broad range of industrial, commercial and personal health products, from cookware to clothing to construction materials, in part because of their water- and stain-resistant properties.
Not only do they take a long time to biodegrade, they also travel long distances through air and water and have been detected in the environment, animals and humans in almost all regions of the world. A U.S. study found them in the blood of 97 per cent of people tested.
Like other persistent organic pollutants, PFAS accumulate in the Arctic region, causing disproportionate toxic harm to communities far removed from their production and consumption chains.
Studies dating as far back as the 1960s found these substances to be harmful, which eventually led to many being phased out. But, as has been the case throughout our history of chemical use, they’re often replaced with other synthetic chemicals that pose similar risks to human and environmental health.
Forever chemicals in water bodies and “biosolids” — organic matter from wastewater treatment used as soil fertilizer — have caused significant harm in farming and fishing communities in the U.S., leading to a flurry of litigation and stricter regulation in a number of jurisdictions. The recent revelation that contaminated biosolids are being exported from the U.S. to Canada has raised concerns that we’ve fallen behind other jurisdictions in regulating this intergenerational, expansive and currently uncontrolled public health risk.
The European Union is considering a proposal to ban more than 10,000 PFAS, and the U.S. is also strengthening measures to address contamination and restrict uses. It’s crucial that Canada’s federal and provincial governments address the massive regulatory gap here. While the federal government holds jurisdiction over toxic substances and has committed to developing a report on the current state of these chemicals, expected to be published this year, provincial governments also have a key role to play in areas under their jurisdiction — for example, watershed and waste management, effluent discharges from industries and drinking water safety.
The recent international COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal underscored the need to reduce pollution from highly hazardous chemicals, an objective included under Target 7 of the resulting global agreement. Federal and provincial governments need to accelerate action on regulating and restricting PFAS to protect public and environmental health from these dangerous substances that have been rampantly commercialized without consideration for the long-lasting harms they pose.
Our current legal frameworks for chemical risk governance have proven to be ineffective and unable to keep up with the speed at which new substances are being introduced to the market. The reality is that chemical governance frameworks have been propelled mainly by economic objectives, not environmental or public health concerns. Ultimately, we need an alternative vision of chemical risk governance, one that not only integrates but prioritizes fundamental environmental principles and objectives, such as intergenerational equity and common concern for humanity.
Prioritizing profit and economic growth over human health and the environment is a short-sighted and increasingly costly way of living that threatens our very survival. The convenience offered by these chemicals is not worth the significant long-lasting dangers. It’s time to make “forever” chemicals a thing of the past.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Quebec and Atlantic Canada Director Sabaa Khan.
Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.