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New amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) passed a final vote in the House of Commons, offering the potential for stronger and more transparent management of toxic chemicals and hazardous substances.
Bill S-5, now under debate in the Senate, is the first major update to Canada’s cornerstone environmental law since Parliament last reformed the law in 1999. The original version of the bill was introduced in April 2021.
Among the many proposed amendments to CEPA is the creation of a hazardous chemicals watchlist that the Minister of Environment and the Minister of Health have reason to suspect are capable of becoming toxic. The watchlist will help importers, manufacturers, and Canadian consumers to select safer alternatives and avoid “regrettable substitutions — replacing one problem chemical with another that, in turn, becomes a problem,” states a backgrounder on the bill.
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Additionally, the government would have to provide timelines for action and publish reasons for delay in the risk management of hazardous substances if the process goes beyond two years.
“After more than a decade of advocacy, Canada’s cornerstone toxics law will soon have new legal tools to better protect us from hazardous substances,” announced Cassie Barker, toxics senior program manager with eco-action group Environmental Defence, in a statement. “However, further action is needed, and we are eager to see the government get to work on the next CEPA bill. We urge the government to deliver on its promise to require mandatory labelling of harmful ingredients, because we all deserve the right to know what toxics are in the products we use every day.”
The bill also calls on the government to develop a Plan of Chemicals Management Priorities to address the prohibition of substances. Prohibition priority would be given to substances that can cause cancer, alter DNA, or impact reproduction, as well as those that are persistent, bioaccumulative and inherently toxic.
A new provision would also allow any person to request that the government assess a substance to determine whether it is toxic or capable of becoming toxic.
“The ministers must consider available information regarding vulnerable populations and cumulative effects when conducting and interpreting the results of certain risk assessments under CEPA,” states the proposed amendment.
Vulnerable populations may include pregnant people, children, people in poor health, workers, and those living in areas where levels of pollution are particularly high.
The amendments in Bill S-5 also offer a provision that addresses the recognition of the right to a healthy environment for the first time under Canadian law. This requires the development and implementation of a framework to set out how that right will be considered in the administration of the Act. The amendment also confirms the government’s commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Passage of Bill S-5 marks a major milestone for environmental rights in Canada, inscribing the right to a healthy environment in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act,” announced Lisa Gue, national policy manager for the David Suzuki Foundation. “Now the work begins to protect that right and uphold the principle of environmental justice,” she added.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault has indicated that he intends to introduce a second Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) modernization bill.