Toxic Substances

AuthorJamie Benidickson
The phrase from sawdust to toxic blobs has been u sed to describe a long-
term transform ation in the Canadian pollution-control agenda.1 Public
concern with a generalized and traditional understanding of pollution
(visible emissions and disch arges presumed to decompose without
harm if released at “safe” levels) has given way to heightened anxiety
over long-term threats to human and env ironmental health from cer-
tain ty pes of contaminants. The concept of toxic substances offers the
prospect of establishing some priorities for new regulatory and remed-
ial efforts. References to “v irtual elimin ation,” to “zero discharge of
toxic chemicals,” and to the precautionary principle are incre asingly
part of these developments. For its part, Europe ha s proceeded further
with the formulation of an initiative known as REACH for Registra-
tion, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals, a program that is
expected to inf‌luence chemicals management around the world.2
Designation of persistent toxics for speci al attention was an import-
ant step in the process of acknowledging t hat, if the environment is
contaminated, so, in time, w ill be the species, including huma ns, who
occupy the planet. But labelling the category of persistent toxics does
1 D Chappell, From Sawdust t o Toxic Blobs: A Considerat ion of Sanctioning Strat-
egies to Combat Pollution in Cana da (Ottawa: Supply & Services , 1989).
2 For general guida nce on REACH from the European Chemic als Agency, see
online: ach/understandin g-reach.
Toxic Substances 281
not lessen the challenge of identifying the characteri stics and ultim-
ately determining the contents of th at category. In general, concern
with toxics focuses on subst ances that are highly resi stant to natural
processes of degradat ion even as they disperse through air, water, and
soil. They may bioaccumulate within food chains, but even in trace
amounts they may be capable of bring ing about biological changes.3
Toxic chemicals, although they are understood to pose signif‌icant
risks to ecosystems and to human health, have often resisted precise
def‌inition and assessment. It has sometimes been diff‌icult to determine
exactly what human and environmental harm is caused by particular
toxic substances. Substances differ in degree of toxicity and in terms
of the nature of their impact, as well as in the timing in which those
consequences appear. Moreover, toxicity varies in relation to concentra-
tion, length, and conditions of exposure; some segments of the popu-
lation, children and the elderly, for example, may be more vulnerable
than others. To complicate understanding still further, toxicity may
be inf‌luenced by the presence of other substances in the environment,
with such combinations and their synergistic consequences remaining
largely unknown. Yet, during the 1970s and 1980s, toxic contamination
was recognized as a signif‌icantly more widespread and intractable prob-
lem than previously acknowledged.4 Reference to a few much- discussed
toxics serves as a reminder of recent developments and provides a par-
tial setting for consideration of legal initiatives.
The displacement in 1988 of some 3,500 people as a consequence of
PCB storage problems at Saint-Basile-le- Grand, Quebec, demonstrated
the vulnerability of urban populations to toxic concentrations, just as
the 1985 PCB spill on the Trans-Canada H ighway near Kenora, Ontario,
and revelations concerning the conta mination of numerous Arctic sites
and mammal populations demonstrated that remoteness was no guar-
antee of immunity. Although PCBs were already the subject of regula-
tory controls dating from the 1970s,5 attention focused on PCBs again
in the late 1980s amidst considerable controversy over storage, exports,
3 Environment Ca nada, “Management of Toxic Substance s,” online: www.canada.
ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/m anagement-toxic-substances.html.
4 With advances i n science and in measurement te chniques, linkages b etween
exposure a nd health impacts have often b ecome more apparent. See T McClen-
aghan et al, “Env ironmental Standard S etting and Children’s Healt h in Canada”
(2003) 12 Journal of Environmental Law & Pract ice 245; D Davis, Whe n Smoke
Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Dece ption and the Battle Against Pollution
(New York: Basic Books, 2002).
5 JF C astrilli & CC Lax, “E nvironmental Regul ation-Making in Canad a: Towards
a More Open Proces s” in J Swaigen, ed, Environmental Rights in Canada
(Toronto: Butterworths, 1981) at 349–59.

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