Non-toxic, free run, all natural. Educated consumers know that the land of product labels is a Wild West of unregulated marketing terms designed to reassure us. But what if your lipstick, cleaning product or cookies came with a warning that in it lurked a disease-inducing chemical. Would you still smear it on your lips or counters or crumble it on your ice cream?
The bold idea, which has been floating around Queen's Park for a week now, is folded into MPP Peter Tabuns's long-awaited Community Right To Know bill, which will be debated in the House today (Thursday, November 30). The three-pronged bill presses for streamlined public access to info on the toxic pollutants being churned out in our 'hoods, and improved worker access to warnings about harmful chems on the job - things activists have long lobbied for.
The fresh twist comes in a California-inspired flagging system that'll tell us when a product contains a chemical known to cause cancer, harm an unborn child or mess with our sex life.
"It's essentially an opportunity to expand people's right to know about toxic chemicals in their homes, their shopping spots and in the workplace," says Tabuns.
Besides simply informing us of the dangers, the proposed amendment to the Consumer Protection Act is designed to spur manufacturers and retailers to reformulate products that contain the flagged toxins.
This is old news in sunny California, where a 15-year-old toxic enforcement act known as Proposition 65 forces businesses to notify the public if a product, workplace or even tap water contains one of the thousands of chems on its naughty list.
And it's proven to be pretty effective. The threat of having to carry a label telling people their correction fluid could eventually give them a tumour pushed Gillette, for instance, to reformulate Liquid Paper - without trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen. Nail polish, ceramics, hair dyes, even the lead foil thingies on top of wine bottles faced similar overhauls. The EU and the state of Vermont, by the way, have also brought in comparable labelling requirements.
No doubt, Canada has been lagging at the back of the pack. Until two weeks ago, cosmetics didn't even have to list their ingredients, as they do in much of the Western world. Not that a lengthy list of unpronounceable chemicals deters most people from buying a product. But a health warning might.
Of course, it all depends on who you ask. Alan Middleton, a marketing prof at York's Schulich School of Business, believes such warnings would have little impact on consumer purchases.
"The view we see in research of most consumers is, number one, they are blithely unaware of all the stuff that is already labelled on products. The evidence is that the people who have problems like allergies or are really concerned about their health will read them, but the vast majority of people just don't."
Rick Smith, e xecutive director of Environmental Defence (ED), doesn't see it that way. "It's very obvious that consumers are interested and want this information," says Smith, pointing to the slo-mo explosion in the public appetite for non-toxic alternatives and organics.
"When you're in the supermarket and you've got two products that do the same thing sitting on the shelf side by side, one labelled as having carcinogenic ingredients while the other one doesn't, I think it's pretty clear what choice people are going to make."
But if these chems are so bad for us, why are they permitted in all these products to begin with? Environmentalists point to an abject failure of political leadership on these issues. For one, Canada's been dragging its feet about bio-monitoring the population, as the U.S. and Europe have been doing for years. (ED took testing into its own hands and found that participants nation-wide had harmful synthetics swimming in their blood.)
And on the regulatory side, Canada has only been assessing chemicals to see how persistent or carcinogenic they are since 1999, and even then the feds let 23,000 chemicals already on the market slip out the lab door without scrutiny.
Sure, Health Canada announced it would reopen case files on 4,000 of those chems back in September. But how long will we have to wait to see action? Health Canada reps will only say "soon."
For its part, Canada's Chemical Producers VP of public affairs Michael Bourque says, "We do believe in the right to know" and would potentially support Tabuns's legislation, but he warns of labelling products that may only contain a few parts per billion of a certain chemical - levels that scientists have found to be safe.
Ruth Grier of the Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition believes that scientists have only a partial picture of any given chemical's impact. "You consistently hear, 'Oh, you're only exposed to a minute amount of that, and that can't hurt you.' But that kind of analysis ignores the fact that we're all exposed to a whole plethora of substances all the time."
Even Ontario's Ministry of Health is taking potshots at federal handling of the issue. "This is traditionally an area where the federal government plays a primary role," says David Spencer, Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman's rep. "Perhaps [Peter Tabuns] is bringing this forward in recognition that the federal government has been slow to respond to this type of issue."
Not that the Ontario government should evade responsibility on this front. Tabuns says his bill got the jurisdictional thumbs-up from Health Canada lawyers, so Smitherman's office shouldn't bother playing the "this ain't our turf" card.
"If you've got a federal government that's not reliable on the environment," says Tabuns, "then you have to take action at lower levels."
Tabuns points to Hudson, Quebec, which took the lead on phasing out toxic lawn pesticides. Now, he says, "a small municipality has changed the culture nationally. If Hudson, Quebec, can take that kind of leadership, I don't see why Ontario can't."