December 16, 2008
Backgrounder to December 16/08 Media Release

Why is CPCHE concerned about environmental threats to child health and development?

  • Children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental threats due to differences in size, behaviour (e.g., crawling, mouthing objects, active play), and their proportionally higher intake of air, water and food, and because their organs and detoxification systems are not fully developed (see pp. 6-7 of First Steps in Lifelong Health).
  • Some childhood disorders are on the rise, including asthma, learning and behavioural disorders and obesity (see pp. 8-9). Environmental exposures are one of a number of contributing factors associated with these health outcomes. Certain cancers are on the rise among young adults, raising concerns about early-life exposure to carcinogens.
  • While some positive steps are being taken by governments, more needs to be done to reduce fetal and childhood exposures to potentially harmful chemicals in homes, schools and community environments, and via consumer products.

Why is CPCHE calling for urgent federal government action on toxic chemicals in consumer products?

  • Many chemicals have not been adequately evaluated for safety and are not regulated. Scientific knowledge of the health effects of many chemicals – particularly on child health and development – is weak or absent.
  • Children spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, where they are exposed to a multitude of chemicals found in everyday consumer products, including chemicals known to harm the developing fetus and child (e.g., lead, mercury) as well as those for which scientific evidence of harm is emerging (e.g., phthalates, polybrominated flame retardants, bisphenol A).
  • Recent studies, as well as early results from the Canadian House Dust Study, confirm that significant amounts of contaminants in consumer products end up in house dust, creating exposures of particular concern for young children who have frequent hand-to-mouth activity and spend lots of time on the floor.
  • Canada’s legislative and regulatory system is not well equipped to prevent adverse health effects from chemicals in consumer products. Without the power to issue mandatory product recalls, the ability to respond when problems arise is limited.

What actions is CPCHE urging the federal government to take to improve consumer product safety?

  • Create a comprehensive consumer product regulatory scheme that:
  • places tighter controls on the use of hazardous chemicals in consumer products and the import of products containing hazardous chemicals;
  • requires labeling of product ingredients and gives the public information on associated health effects; and
  • gives the federal government the power to issue mandatory product recalls.
  • Immediately ban the sale of consumer products containing non-essential lead and mercury, in light of the well-documented harm that these substances cause to children’s developing brains (see Box 17, p. 22).
  • Ban the sale of children’s products containing phthalates, following the lead of Europe and the United States (see Box 20, p. 24). Phthalates are synthetic plasticizers used in a wide variety of products, including vinyl and many personal care and cleaning products, and have been linked to developmental impacts and cancer. Canada remains far behind leading countries with its proposed ban on only a single phthalate (DEHP) in children’s products.
  • Ban the manufacture, import, use and sale of all polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and PBDE-containing products. PBDEs are chemicals associated with reproductive and other health effects. They are used as flame retardants in electronics and other consumer products. While Canada has declared PBDEs toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), the ban applies only to PBDEs voluntarily phased out in 2004. Deca-BDE is still in widespread and increasing use in Canada (see Box 19, pp. 23-24).
  • Significantly reduce exposures to hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from consumer products by requiring manufacturers to substitute them with safer alternatives.

What must Canada do to achieve a more precautionary approach to protecting the developing fetus and child from toxic chemicals in the environment and consumer products?

  • Reverse the burden of proof so that the producer or importer of a chemical has to provide governmental evaluators with sufficient data to support a claim of acceptable risk before gaining or retaining access to the marketplace.
  • Require that chemicals be tested for potential effects on fetal/child development, including effects on the developing brain and nervous system (see Box 11, p. 18).
  • Adopt the substitution principle to require that hazardous chemicals be replaced with safer alternatives, wherever possible. § Ensure transparency in regulatory decision-making and promote the public’s right-to-know by increasing public access to information on chemicals and pollutants.

What is longitudinal cohort research and why is CPCHE recommending increased government support for it?

  • Longitudinal cohort research involves tracking various determinants of health (e.g., socio-economic status, environmental exposures, diet) along with health outcomes in a group or “cohort” of individuals over time. Such research is essential for attaining a better understanding of how environment and other factors affect health and development. The United States has embarked on an ambitious longitudinal cohort study called the U.S. National Children’s Study. CPCHE notes that longitudinal research was among the top five recommendations of the federal Minister of Health’s Advisor on Healthy Children and Youth, Dr. Kellie Leitch (see Box 8, p. 14).
  • In addition to urging greater overall investment in longitudinal research, CPCHE is calling on the federal government to approve funding to expand the Maternal-Infant Research on Environmental Chemicals (MIREC) study so that the health of the babies born to participating mothers is tracked and evaluated over time (see Box 10, pp. 16-17).

What other actions are needed to strengthen children’s environmental health research in Canada?

  • CPCHE is calling on the federal government to establish a long-term national research agenda to address gaps in knowledge on how chemicals affect the developing fetus and child (see action step 1, p. 13).
  • There is also a need to significantly expand educational, training and career opportunities for researchers in a range of disciplines.
  • Canada must build on recent progress in gathering biomonitoring data through the Canadian Health Measures Survey by investing in increased surveillance and tracking of environmental hazards, children’s exposures and health outcomes at both the federal and provincial/territorial levels.

What role can parents, caregivers, health professionals and others take in safeguarding children’s environmental health?

  • Many people are involved in decisions that affect the quality of children’s indoor and outdoor environments, including parents and caregivers, doctors, public health nurses, teachers, urban planners, community leaders, retail sales people and many others. They must be empowered through increased education and training on environment-health interactions and preventive strategies. Efforts must be expanded to provide information to parents and caregivers that enables them to make informed choices (e.g., through labeling, outreach and other means).
  • Health professionals have especially vital roles to play, as they are often the most trusted source of information and advice to the public on how to protect children from environmental health risks. However, they often lack the training, education and other supports needed to effectively play this role (see Boxes 23-25, pp. 29-31)

How does Canada compare to other countries when it comes to protecting children’s health from toxic chemicals in the environment and in consumer products?

  • Canada took a world-leading step with its work on categorization of the entire CEPA Domestic Substances List (see Box 7, p. 10), which has resulted in a set of priorities. Much more needs to be done, however, to achieve tangible results that ensure a truly precautionary and preventive approach to children’s environmental health protection in Canada.
  • Canada too often lags behind other jurisdictions, such as the United States and the European Union, in acting on toxic substances to which children are routinely exposed, such as PBDEs, phthalates and lead (see Boxes 19 and 20, pp. 23-24). Admirably, Canada is the first country to say it will act on bisphenol-A with a proposed ban on its use in baby bottles, but the action is too limited in scope. Since fetal exposure to BPA is likely of greatest concern, a more comprehensive approach is needed to control BPA in all food and drink containers, to reduce maternal exposure.
  • Despite having declared both lead and mercury toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, products readily available to children are still too frequently found to contain these potent neurotoxicants.

What positive developments on children’s environmental health protection and chemicals management are happening in Canada?

  • CPCHE believes there are encouraging signs of progress at the federal, provincial and local levels of government, as well as some progressive actions by individuals and organizations outside of government (see Box 7, pp. 10-11 for examples).
  • Public awareness of the risks that may be posed by toxic chemicals in consumer products and the environment has risen dramatically, spiked by large-scale recalls of lead-contaminated toys and the announced ban on plastic baby bottles containing bisphenol A. CPCHE partners believe that Canada has an opportunity to address public concern by building a proactive and world-leading national strategy to protect the fetus and child from threats posed by hazardous chemicals and pollutants.

Additional resources:

The following resources produced by CPCHE partners provide additional information on children’s environmental health issues and are available on the CPCHE website at

Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, 2005. Child Health and the Environment – A Primer. Provides a comprehensive overview of children’s environmental health issues, including why children are more vulnerable to environmental threats, health effects and exposures of concern, what is being done in Canada, and “childproofing” tips for parents and caregivers.

Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment/Pollution Probe, 2008. Report of the National Policy Consultation: Building a Dialogue Towards a National Strategy for Children’s Health and Environment in Canada. Combined backgrounder and summary of outcomes of the 2007 cross-Canada workshop series on children’s environmental health convened by CPCHE and Pollution Probe.

Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, 2007. A Father’s Day Report – Men, Boys and Environmental Health Threats. Summarizes the disproportionate health effects, thought to be linked to environmental contaminants, affecting the male fetus and child.

Toronto Public Health, 2005. Environmental Threats to Children: Understanding the Risks, Enabling Prevention. Comprehensive summary of scientific evidence of environmental threats to child health, including recommendations.

CPCHE Partners:

Following are the eleven CPCHE partner organizations and principal/media contacts.

Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) Gideon Foreman, Executive Director 416-306-2273

Canadian Child Care Federation (CCCF) Robin McMillan 1-800-858-1412 Ext. 242

Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) Kathleen Cooper, Senior Researcher 416-960-2284 ext 221 or 705-341-2488

Environmental Health Clinic, Women’s College Hospital Dr. Riina Bray, 416 -323-6400 Ext: 4992 or Pager: 416-468-3639

Environmental Health Institute of Canada (EHI-Canada) Dr. Lynn Marshall, President and Chair of the Board of Directors 905-845-3462

Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) Barbara McElgunn, Health Policy Advisor 416-281-9676

Ontario College of Family Physicians (OCFP) Jan Kasperski, Executive Director 416-867-9646

Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA) Franca Ursitti, Research and Policy Analyst, Peel Region – Public Health 905-791-7800 ext. 2712

Pollution Probe Bob Oliver, Executive Director 416-926-1907

South Riverdale Community Health Centre Jessica Kwik, Health Promoter 416-461-1925 ex 253

Toronto Public Health (TPH) Rishma Govani, Media Relations 416-338-7974

CPCHE Partnership Director: Erica Phipps (819) 458-3750; (613) 858-4787