OTTAWA — Firefighting foams, cosmetics and food packaging that contain cancer-causing "forever chemicals" could be limited or outright banned in Canada following a federal government risk assessment of the products that inches closer to declaring them "toxic."
"Only diamonds should be forever, not human-made substances that are polluting our environment," Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Friday, as his department released a draft report on PFAS chemicals.
PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of more than 4,700 chemicals used in dozens of products including lubricants, water and dirt repellents, textiles, foams and packaging.
The draft report says there is growing evidence that the chemicals carry significant health risks to humans. These include increased rates of cancers such as kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid problems, infertility, skin issues and vision problems, including blindness.
Because they don't break down easily, they have been dubbed "forever chemicals" — and they are accumulating in concentration as more and more continue to be used.
Their use is so widespread that they are now found all over the place: in our water, our soils, our wastewater, our landfills and even the bloodstreams of people and animals.
Environment Canada has previously designated specific subsets of PFAS chemicals as "toxic" under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, because of the risks they pose to humans or the environment.
But Cassie Barker, the toxics program manager at Environmental Defence, said that just meant companies turned immediately to other PFAS options that pose the same risks.
"We need a comprehensive approach and this is a good start," she said.
"We need to turn off the tap on all PFAS. It's the only way to get off this contamination path."
Barker said this is the first time Environment Canada has looked at an entire class of chemicals, not just individual substances.
The report notes the reason for that was, indeed, to address the concerns that unregulated substances would be substituted for those added to the toxics list — and that reviewing and regulating each one individually would take more time than is available to stop the threat they pose.
"Owing to the extreme persistence of these substances, impacts on the environment are expected to increase if entry to the environment continues," the report says.
It says PFAS should be designated as toxic under the act because they "have or may have immediate or long-term harmful effects on the environment or its biological diversity."
Another 60 days is now needed to await public comment on the findings, after which Environment Canada can move on recommending how the government should proceed.
That could include regulating some or all products containing PFAS, from limits on their use right to outright bans.
Canada would be following Europe and some U.S. states in regulating the use of PFAS or some products. Over the winter, Europe agreed to ban PFAS except in essential uses with no alternatives.
Neil McMillan, an Ottawa firefighter and director of science and research with the International Association of Fire Fighters, said he welcomes the report's specific reference to the risks of PFAS-containing foam used to fight fires involving combustible fuels.
His association has been advocating to ban the foam for years, and has convinced many fire services and airports to do so on their own.
But McMillan said firefighters are exposed to PFAS in many other ways, including in all of the gear they put on when they go out on a call.
"The safe alternatives are there," he said in an interview. "Some exposures are unavoidable. But the ones that are avoidable should be engineered out of the system."
McMillan said PFAS exposure and risks is the "number one topic" within health and safety that fellow firefighters raise with him.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2023.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press