Maureen Lafrenière

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA 1999), in effect since March 2000, is the country's primary legislation on environmental protection. Unlike most federal legislation, this Act — covering sustainability, pollution prevention and the precautionary principle — is subject to parliamentary review every five years,.

The purpose of the review is to assess the effectiveness of CEPA in preventing pollution and in protecting human health and the environment, to evaluate Environment Canada's performance in fulfilling the goals of the Act, and to provide an opportunity for public feedback on how well CEPA is protecting the environment and human health.

As part of the process, The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development (House of Commons) and the Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources (Senate) are each given one year — 2006 — to gather information and table a report of findings and recommendations. The Government will then respond with possible amendments to CEPA 1999 before proceeding with its assent and proclamation (expected in 2008 or 2009).

Although the entire text is of interest, two sections of CEPA 1999 are of particular relevance to BCAM and other groups involved in cancer prevention: Existing Substances and New Substances. The first involves the screening and categorization of substances currently in use in Canada to prioritize some for further study and action. The second ensures that no new substance enters the Canadian marketplace without first being assessed for toxicity.

The basis for managing toxic substances is the Domestic Substances List, which includes approximately 23,500 substances that were in commercial use in Canada between 1984 and 1986 (original list). The DSL is amended regularly to include new substances assessed under CEPA and allowed for use in Canada. Most substances on the original list, however, were never fully evaluated for toxicity, having been "grandfathered" by virtue of their widespread use at that time. Under CEPA 1999, all must be reviewed by September 13, 2006, and prioritized for further assessment for one or more of four risk factors:

  1. "inherent toxicity" (causing toxic effects) to humans or non-human organisms;
  2. persistence (difficulty in breaking down);
  3. bio-accumulation (collecting in living organisms and amplifying in the food chain.);
  4. extensive use (i.e. presenting the greatest potential for human exposures).

Following the initial categorization, it is not known how long the full assessments will take.

The parliamentary committees are accepting comments and opinions on CEPA 1999 until September 8, 2006, before proceeding with the writing and tabling of their respective reports. To contact the parliamentary committees:

Take Action
The Canadian Environmental Law Association and the Canadian Environmental Network, among others, are encouraging individuals and non-governmental organizations, particularly those working on environment and health, to submit opinions and recommendations to both parliamentary committees as soon as possible. Given the lobbying from many sides on a variety of proposed changes to CEPA, it is crucial that the federal government be aware of opinions from the public and from public interest groups.

CELA and Environmental Defence together submitted a brief listing 34 specific recommendations for improvements to the Act, including:

  • a shorter assessment period, particularly for the highest-priority toxic substances;
  • additional resources to carry out assessments in a timely way;
  • consideration for vulnerable populations in risk-assessment calculations;
  • better mechanisms for tracking, adding or deleting substances from any of the substance lists and the marketplace;
  • special provisions relating to releases of toxic substances in the Great Lakes basin;
  • consideration of safe alternatives as part of the assessment process;
  • public access to information related to toxic substances.

Read the brief Reforming the Canadian Environmental Protection Act

We are encouraged to contact our members of parliament, asking them to support and strengthen CEPA 1999 on the basis of the precautionary principle and the reduction of risk to human health.

PollutionWatch: Reforming the Canadian Environmental Protection Act
Note: PollutionWatch is a project of Environmental Defence and the Canadian Environmental Law Association
Canadian Environmental Law Association: Reviewing CEPA Canadian Environmental Network: Parliamentary Review Process (CEPA 1999)
Environment Canada: The CEPA 1999 review process
Martin Mittelstaedt: "Toxic Shock" (parts 1, 2 & 3) — The Globe & Mail, May 27, 29 & 30, 2006

Understanding CEPA's substances lists

Non-Domestic Substances List
Environment Canada maintains a Non-Domestic Substances List (NDSL) based on the American EPA's Toxic Substances Control Act Chemical Substances Inventory for 1985. This contains more than 58 000 entries. Substances that are not on the DSL but are listed on the NDSL are subject to lesser information requirements.

Domestic Substances List
The DSL is an inventory of approximately 23,500 substances manufactured in, imported into or used in Canada on a commercial scale. It is based on substances present in Canada, under certain conditions, between January 1, 1984 and December 31, 1986. Most have not been assessed for toxicity.

Priority Substances List
The PSL identifies substances to be assessed on a priority basis to determine whether they are toxic (as defined under CEPA) and pose a risk to the health of Canadians or to the environment. Assessments are the shared responsibility of Environment Canada and Health Canada. Assessments of the first 44 substances placed on the list (PSL1) were completed by February 1994 and 25 substances make up the second list (PSL2).

Virtual Elimination List
The Ministers of the Environment and of Health compile the Virtual Elimination List, which specifies the level of quantification for each substance and prescribes the quantity or concentration of the substance that may be released into the environment either alone or in combination with any other substance from any source or type of source.

National Pollutant Release Inventory
The National Pollution Release Inventory (NPRI) is a national, legislated, publicly-accessible inventory. It tracks on-site releases of pollutants to air, water, land, and underground; off-site transfers for disposal; and off-site transfers for recovery, re-use, recycling and energy recovery.

(source: CEPA registry, Environment Canada)