Guest column: Everyone should have legal right to healthy environment

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It’s long past time Canada caught up to the 156 UN Member states who already recognize the right to a healthy environment.

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Environmental conditions related to climate change and other modern-day exposures are adversely impacting individual and community health. CEPA, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, was initially enacted in 1988. It was last updated in 1999.

The first reading on April 13, of Bill C-28, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act, including the right to a healthy environment, was hailed as an essential first step. But the political process is once again on hold.

To understand the importance of a federal law that enshrines the right to a healthy environment — uncompromised by economic interests — it is helpful to dig into how chemicals and pollutants impact people in their day-to-day environment.

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Several studies I have worked on focused on the relationship between cancer and environmental exposures.

Environmental refers not only to the external or outside environments, but also our work environments, home environments — and even our first environment, the womb.

The research examined links between air pollution, pesticides, herbicides, plastics and substances in personal care products.

Research with a few thousand women in the Windsor-Essex region in southwestern Ontario found three times higher likelihood of breast cancer among women who lived and worked in farming operations and, in particular, with early life agricultural exposures.

Women who worked in auto manufacturing, including plastics manufacturing, were five times more likely to develop breast cancer. Women’s breast cancer diagnoses more than doubled in food canning operations where the exposures included endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Among hairdressers, where a mix of toxic substances are found, there were higher reports of breast cancer.

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I have completed research with female employees at the Ambassador Bridge. The bridge is the busiest border crossing in North America. Thousands of commuters, tourists and truck drivers carry 27 per cent of the approximately $400 billion in annual trade between Canada and the U.S. across the bridge.

Women workers there report a high incidence of breast cancer. However, the numbers have never been formally documented despite calls to do so.

Based on anecdotal reporting of breast cancer cases, the incidence appears to be 47 times more elevated than the county rates. It wasn’t just breast cancer reported – it was thyroid disease, other reproductive system cancers, infertility, miscarriage, men with breast cancer, brain cancer, testicular cancer and children’s birth anomalies.

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People living in neighbourhoods around the bridge corridor — communities where many racialized people, people who recently migrated to Canada, international students and people living in poverty — also have higher rates of many diseases.

Exposure to toxics is both a public health and environmental justice problem.

The environments we live, work and play in and exposures in these environments are not necessarily a matter of individual choice.

We often frame health and environmental issues as behaviour choices, as problems of lifestyle. But this approach ignores the fact that we don’t all have access to the same lifestyle.

Where we live and exposures in our neighbourhoods or our homes are often involuntary. The jobs we have and vulnerabilities in our workplaces are often outside of our control. The power to manage these exposures lies outside the individual and within laws, regulations, policies, economic and social systems.

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When we talk about public health and justice, factors we call social and structural determinants of health (SDHs) are part of the story, including income, education, working conditions, racism, sexism and discrimination.

SDHs often reveal inequities built into our social structures.

If I cannot afford to buy food without harmful chemicals, that is a problem of justice. If I live in a house in a neighbourhood near industrial pollutants, that’s an environmental justice problem. And if I have to work in a job where toxic chemicals are part of my daily working conditions, that too is an environmental justice problem.

Women, children, racialized and Indigenous peoples, plus many workers are made more vulnerable by their living and working conditions. They and everyone else are entitled to the right to a healthy environment.

The Canadian federal government must proceed with the Canadian Protection Act (CEPA) legislative reform to prevent exposure to toxics or pollution and recognize the right to a healthy environment.

Jane E. McArthur is Toxics Campaign Director for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, a national physician-led organization advocating at the intersection of health and environment.

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