Photo: What's inside a government answer?  It's the quality of the answer that counts

By Lisa Gue, Environmental Health Policy Analyst

The government's environmental watchdog, the Commissioner for Environment and Sustainable Development, tabled his annual report in Parliament. It included a small mention of the environmental petition filed by the David Suzuki Foundation and Réseau des femmes en environnement on gender-bending chemicals in personal care products.

Our petition questioned Health Canada's enforcement of the regulatory prohibition on "an estrogenic substances" in cosmetics. We noted that, although Canada's Cosmetic Regulations clearly state that cosmetics must not contain "estrogenic substances", several chemicals commonly used as ingredients in cosmetics — such as parabens and phthalates — show evidence of estrogenic activity and have been classified by the European Union as suspected endocrine-disrupting substances. Endocrine disrupters are known as "gender-benders" and are chemicals that mimic hormones or interfere in other ways with the endocrine system, which regulates various body functions.

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In our petition we asked what action Health Canada is taking against manufacturers or importers of cosmetics containing endocrine disrupters with estrogenic effects The government's disappointing response was, "Currently Health Canada's Cosmetic Program considers 'estrogenic substances' to be those produced by animals... and does not include synthetic or industrial chemicals where any estrogenic activity is incidental." Umm...why not?!?

We also asked how many chemicals identified by the European Union (E.U.) as suspected endocrine disrupters are being used as ingredients in our personal care products. Health Canada's response was again baffling. The department told us that the E.U. currently lists 115 substances as Category 1 or 2 endocrine disrupters. But in fact the E.U.'s online database shows 319 substances in this category. It seems that Health Canada inexplicably limited its analysis to the subset of chemicals categorized in the first of four studies undertaken as part of the E.U. Strategy on Endocrine Disrupters.

The Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development cast Health Canada's response in an undeservingly favourably light in his recent report. He states that, "Health Canada provided detailed and understandable information on its work in this area, including its risk assessment processes and its categorization of endocrine disrupting chemicals. The Department also indicated which chemicals are being used in cosmetics according to its Cosmetic Notification System."

It's just too bad that the "detailed and understandable" information wasn't up to date. Sadly, the Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development's mandate with respect to environmental petitions only extends to ensuring that government departments provide a timely response, not to assessing whether the response is accurate or reasonable.

The Commissioner also undertakes audits of government work in the area of environment and sustainable development. On the basis of one such audit, yesterday's report presented a scathing critique of enforcement of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). As the Commissioner pointed out, "enforcing CEPA is an important part of protecting the health of Canadians, biodiversity, and the quality of Canada's air, soil, and water." Maybe the Commissioner will consider auditing Health Canada's enforcement of the Cosmetic Regulations next!

In the meantime, we have filed a follow-up petition asking Health Canada to revise its response in light of the complete body of work published by the E.U. Strategy on Endocrine Disrupters. We also asked whether Health Canada is actively monitoring international developments in endocrine disruption science and policy. We expect to receive a response to this follow-up petition in the early spring.

December 14, 2011

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