Health Canada gets it right after a decade of shame

In the good news file, children in this country will face one less threat in their toy-boxes as Canada finally banned products containing phthalates this week. These chemical additives are used to soften plastic and vinyl, have often found their way into children’s toys - which is bad enough – and children’s soothers – which is downright scary.

If you are unable to recall how long this ban has been imminent, you can be forgiven. It has been on the radar for more than a decade. The European Parliament banned them in 1999. That same year, Health Canada issued a warning that children weighing under 8.2 kg who suck on products such as teethers and rattles made with di-isononyl phthalate (DINP) for more than three hours a day run the risk of liver enlargement or kidney scarring.

With a warning like that and the action of the European Parliament, one might suggest a ban on these products would have been more appropriate in 1999. It’s not as if our parliament hadn’t been made aware of it either. New Democrat MP, Judy Wasylycia-Leis had been championing the issue since her election in 1997. Obviously, the government of the day wasn’t listening.

In 2006, a New Democrat Bill to ban to ban all types of phthalates in children's products was debated in the House of Commons. The bill received unanimous support in the House, but died in the Senate in the fall of 2008, when Stephen Harper called a federal election to get voters to the polls ahead of the looming economic downturn.

It is easy to say that once again New Democrats were way ahead of the pack, but it is cold comfort when we consider that a lot of children were exposed to this hormone-disrupting chemical unnecessarily over the last decade. More so, why are these products coming to market without reasonable testing that would identify the risks?

We are well aware that our environment is filling up with chemicals. Our fresh water is loaded with chemical residue. Our atmosphere is visibly dirtier year after year yet, when a product, like this dangerous chemical compound, is exposed as dangerous, the machinery of government moves at a snail’s pace.

Health Canada is supposed to be an agency that protects Canadians. In this case, it would seem, it shirked its responsibility and favoured the producers of soft vinyl toys and soothers. Where is the ministerial oversight and why wasn’t the health of Canadians the priority instead of the health of the companies who profited for more than a decade selling items in Canada that were banned overseas? We saw this last Autumn as well, when we learned that Health Canada had been sitting on testing results that showed unacceptably high cadmium levels in children’s toys for months, despite their own research showing that cadmium is even more toxic than lead.

Perhaps it’s time to shake things up at Health Canada and maybe in the Ministers office as well. We can argue about the economy until we’re blue in the face, but no matter what your political stripe, you will likely agree that we shouldn’t be endangering our citizen’s health just to make a quick buck.