Q&A -Federal government audit
Q&A -COMMISSIONER OF THE ENVIRONMENT
On May 31, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Julie Gelfand, tabled her Spring 2016 reports. These reports focused on federal programs that are intended to support the sustainability of Canadian communities, on what the federal government is doing to support long-term efforts to mitigate the effects of severe weather, and on how Health Canada manages risks to human health and safety posed by chemical substances used in cosmetics and household consumer products. WaterToday sent Commissioner Gelfand email questions on June 1. The questions and answers are below.
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WaterToday - With industry's track record for withholding product information and in view of the thousands of new chemical substances created every day - not to mention Health Canada's existing backlog of 1550 priority substances - what concrete measures should Health Canada put in place to accelerate timely responses and ensure follow-through on potential health and safety incidents. More money, more staff, better procedures?
Gelfand - Under the section heading with the finding that says "Health Canada did not ensure industry compliance with reporting requirements for health and safety incidents and cosmetic notifications" we recommended at paragraph 3.71 that to assist the Department in tracking compliance and prioritizing its oversight and response activities, Health Canada should
Under the section heading with the finding that says "Health Canada was slow to respond when cosmetic notifications included prohibited substances" we recommended at paragraph 3.80 that Health Canada should improve its follow-up on cosmetic notifications with prohibited substances by verifying that companies have implemented corrective actions and that non-compliant products are no longer available to Canadians.
- verify the extent of industry compliance with incident reporting requirements for consumer products, and
- update its cosmetic notification form to request voluntary disclosure of the actual or expected date of first sale in Canada.
Under the section heading with the finding that says "Health Canada was slow to confirm compliance after requesting product recalls" we recommended at paragraph 3.90 that Health Canada should improve the verification of product recalls and the documentation of overall recall effectiveness.
Health Canada agreed with each of our recommendations.
Please Note, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada does not make policy-related recommendations such as "more money" or "more staff".
WaterToday - According to the report "the number and variety of consumer products and cosmetics available in Canada are growing. Products with more complex chemistries and new materials are entering the Canadian marketplace."
How can Health Canada ensure that the improved procedure/measures it puts in place today will be adequate in the future as more and more nano substances are brought to market?
Gelfand - While we recognize that nano substances in consumer products and cosmetics is another type of risk area that the Department must detect, assess, and respond to using the mechanisms it has currently in place, we did not include in our published audit report any findings specific to this risk area. Your specific question would best be addressed to Health Canada.
However, with respect to the areas we did include in our audit report, we reached the following conclusion:
3.108 We concluded that Health Canada's Consumer Product Safety Program could not fully assure Canadians that its post-market oversight activities were working to protect the public by addressing or preventing dangers to human health or safety posed by chemicals of concern in household consumer products and cosmetics.
3.109 Given the size of the Canadian marketplace, it would be challenging for Health Canada to provide Canadians with a high level of assurance about the health and safety of consumer products and cosmetics. However, we have identified improvements that could be made within a post-market environment that would help the Program to detect, assess, and respond to risks and help consumers to make fully informed choices in the interests of their own health and safety.
WaterToday - With regards to the Consumer Product Safety Program, the report found information gaps, one of which is the Department had not assessed the scope and magnitude of risks associated with international e-commerce.
In view of the magnitude of this sector, this is quite the gap. How in your view could this be efficiently addressed?
Gelfand - Given that the Department had not assessed the scope and magnitude of risks associated with international e-commerce, we recommended at paragraph 3.34 that Health Canada should
Note, at paragraph 3.33 we acknowledged one action that the department was taking at the time of the audit - Health Canada was part of a collaborative international project with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to test the availability of non-compliant products via online sellers. It was in the early stages of efforts to better understand the risks to consumers from e-commerce.
- assess the scope and magnitude of risks posed by e-commerce products, and
- inform consumers and retailers about the risks and the limitations of regulatory oversight and recourse in these areas.
Working with federal partners and international partners may in fact be one way of trying to address this risk area efficiently.
WaterToday - Another information gap refers to the chemical components of cosmetic ingredients characterized as "parfum," "aroma," "fragrance," or "flavour," which might contain chemicals of concern, are not required to be disclosed to Health Canada or consumers,. Are you referring to phthalates which have been identified as harmful to human health under Health Canada's own Chemicals Management Plan? To what do you attribute such an oversight?
Gelfand - A key point of that finding is that neither consumers nor Health Canada know which chemical substances comprise the mixture of ingredients behind those catch-all terms. We understand though that one of the possible substances that could be found in the mixtures behind those catch-all terms are phthalates.
As we note in paragraph 3.42 the Cosmetic Regulations do not require industry to disclose the chemical components of cosmetic ingredients characterized as "parfum," "aroma," "fragrance," or "flavour" to Health Canada or to consumers on product labels. This is also the case in other jurisdictions, including the United States and the European Union. The rationale is that these mixtures are considered trade secrets.
WaterToday - The report states "Of particular concern are chemicals that are considered endocrine disruptors. Even at low doses, these can present dangers to human health and safety."
In view of the recent clamour over the EPA's lowering of the lifetime threshold for PFOA and PFOS in water, decades after these products were in use. What if any measure can be taken to avoid contaminating our waterways when it comes to new Chemicals in Consumer Products and Cosmetics?
Gelfand - We did not examine this issue as part of our audit. Your specific question would likely best be addressed to Environment and Climate Change Canada, and to Health Canada.
WaterToday - Overall, the audit found that Infrastructure Canada could not adequately demonstrate that the Gas Tax Fund has achieved its environmental objectives of cleaner air, cleaner water, and reduced emissions of greenhouse gases.
In view of the findings in the Chemicals in Consumer and Cosmetic products section of the audit, would you recommend that future municipal infrastructure projects also include the proliferation of pharmaceuticals and chemicals in water as an environmental concern that should be addressed ?
Gelfand - In our audit, we did not examine the possibility of increased concentrations of pharmaceuticals or toxic substances in water as a result of federal infrastructure funding, nor did we examine the effectiveness of the regulatory framework for controlling such substances.
WaterToday - With regards to mitigating the impacts of severe weather, the report found many lackings with regards, to funding, tools, communications, etc. It is our understanding that there has been extensive scientific research at NRCan regarding climate adaptation and mitigation. To what do you attribute the lack of follow-through to decision-makers?
Would you attribute this to political will or procedural mismanagement?
Gelfand - As stated in the paragraph 25 of our report, we found that several departments, such as Natural Resources Canada, produced helpful information and tools for decision makers. The NRCan Adaptation Platform brings key stakeholders together and released important information on mitigation. Two examples were provided in the report. The audit did not examine any possible barriers in place for the dissemination of information to decision-makers.
The department is better positioned to respond to this question.
WaterToday - Today Health Canada announced it will stop issuing new conditional registrations for pesticides, are you aware of other consumer products granted conditional registrations?
Gelfand - Note, pesticides are not a "consumer product" as defined by the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act. Pesticides are instead covered under other legislation namely the Pest Control Products Act administered by Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA). Your specific question would best be addressed to the PMRA.