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Canadian Public Health Association

Phthalates and BPA: Inaction by the Government of Canada Poses a Health Risk to Canadians

Gagan Dhami

As a Canadian consumer, it is likely that the detergent, cosmetics, or toys you bought on a recent shopping trip, as well as the packaging of your food and your shopping receipt, contains chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). Phthalates are a large group of chemicals, often used to make plastics more flexible and durable, but they can also be found in shampoos and detergents, cosmetics, and even plastic packaging. The most common types of phthalates that are found in consumer goods include DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIDP and DNOP. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical found in the coating of shopping receipts, toys, and the lining for metal cans. 

These substances are called endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), and exposure to them can change reproductive mechanisms in women and men, and alter the development of young children and the unborn. There are strong reasons to think that Canada’s government has inadequately regulated these substances in consumer goods, due to outdated policies and risk assessment methods. This can be seen through the lack of precautionary principles in current regulation, and a risk assessment approach that focuses on potential exposure to chemicals rather than evaluating potential and actual exposure concurrently.

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), created in 1999, aims to prevent pollution and protect the environment and human health from risks associated with toxic substances. CEPA defines toxicity in terms of risks that substances pose to the environment and human health. Once a chemical has been assessed as toxic, it must be added to the List of Toxic Substances in Schedule 1. When chemicals are put on this list, regulations and guidelines are developed to prevent or control exposure. 

Phthalates are on this list, and manufacturers must follow guidelines when using these chemicals: for example, no more than 1000mg/kg of DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIDP, or DNOP are allowed in children’s toys or childcare articles. Although BPA is not on the List of Toxic Substances in Schedule 1, it is found in the priority substances list, which CEPA requires for substances to be assessed on a priority basis to determine if they are toxic and pose a risk to Canadians. 

A BPA ban in baby bottles was established in 2010 due to concerns about the health effects of human exposure. However, this chemical is still found in food packaging and in receipts. It is highly absorbable through wet skin, and it is through skin contact that the chemical primarily enters the bloodstream. 

Unlike Canada, the European Union has declared BPA to be of very high concern, meaning that the chemical is banned altogether until it can be proven safe to use. This classification was established in March 2018 under the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) regulation, which is one of the many regulations that the European Union uses as guidelines for permissible chemicals allowed in consumer products. This decision was supported by the scientific committees of the European Chemicals Agency, partly because of the common use of BPA in consumer goods such as the lining of food and drink cans, sports equipment, CDs and DVDs. Within the European Union, BPA is now found only in thermal paper, with a permissible concentration of 0.02%.

Current evidence suggests that actual exposure to BPA and phthalates is harmful. Prevalence of human exposure to BPA is also well documented. One study found that among the general population, there is a widespread exposure to phthalates such as DEHP and DBP, with the major source coming from food-related items such as plastic packaging. Additionally, high exposure to phthalates such as DEHP is commonly seen in medical patients exposed to blood bags and tubings. In a study of 2517 participants aged 6 and older, 92.6% of participants had urinary BPA concentrations in the range of 0.49 to 149μg/L, meaning there was a significant exposure to this EDC. Another study examined BPA concentration in the placental tissue of 37 pregnant women, and found the median concentration to be 12.7ng/g. Considering that Health Canada suggests that 0.18μg/kg (0.18ng/g) is a permissible amount for the body without experiencing negative health effects, this study shows that there is a risk of exposure, and negative health outcomes can be associated. An additional study found that the presence of BPA in 40 pregnant women was considered to be detrimental to reproductive, metabolic and behavioural health. 

Canada has refrained from banning phthalates and BPA because it does not endorse the precautionary principles used in the European Union. In Canada, the approach to evaluating a chemical is that it is safe until it is proven to be unsafe. There is a greater emphasis by the Canadian government on conducting risk assessments, determining the risk of exposure, and determining human and environmental health effects in order to see if a chemical is safe enough to add to consumer products. 

However, Canada should opt for placing the responsibility for proving the safety of chemicals such as BPA and phthalates onto companies who want to add them into their products. This is the approach that the European Union has taken in their REACH regulation, which requires manufacturers to submit a full set of toxicity data to the European Chemical Agency before a chemical can be used. Europe has stronger standards compared to the US and Canada, because of the effectiveness of the REACH regulation, and its precautionary principle that the chemical is unsafe until it is proven to be safe through risk characterization by manufacturers. In October 2018, Canada assessed twenty-eight phthalates to see if a ban was necessary, concluding that no ban would be imposed; by comparison, in the European Union at least seven of these phthalates are currently banned.

Current Canadian policy states that for chemicals to move on to a formal risk assessment, one of the classifications that the substance must meet is that it needs to present the greatest potential of exposure. However, studies propose that risk assessment should evaluate the risk of actual exposure as well, in order to evaluate total human exposure and thereby make the risk assessment more thorough. The Contaminated Land Exposure Assessment (CLEA) guideline used by the UK measures potential and actual human exposure pathways, and this assessment is able to find multiple contact media and exposure routes to be evaluated further. Canada should also adopt similar methods of risk assessment, to ensure that all outlets of exposure are accounted for and that appropriate regulations can be established for phthalates and BPA. 

The poor regulation of EDCs in Canada is a serious public health issue, as the exposure threatens to alter growth in young children and change the reproductive mechanisms in adults. By adopting the precautionary principles that the European Union uses, as well as focusing on both potential and actual risk of exposure in its risk assessment model, the Canadian government should impose a ban on these chemicals. 

Gagan Dhami, Honours Life Sciences B.Sc., McMaster University


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