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Trevor Hancock: Protecting health in our chemical society

Last week, The Lancet — one of the world’s leading medical journals — published another in its series of commission reports on various aspects of planetary health, this time on pollution and health.

Last week, The Lancet — one of the world’s leading medical journals — published another in its series of commission reports on various aspects of planetary health, this time on pollution and health.

Next week, I will delve into the report in some detail, but first I want to go back 36 years, to when I was the co-author of a major report for the Local Board of Health for Toronto on the health impacts of our chemical society. We sought to document the overall health, social, environmental and economic impacts of our widespread use of chemicals, and suggest actions we should take to reduce or eliminate those impacts.

Our report, Our Chemical Society, defined a chemical society as “one which believes its quality of life is, in large measure, dependent upon, and directly related to, the widespread production and use of chemicals.” We noted that at that time, there were 60,000 to 100,000 chemicals in commercial use. Of these, 34,000 were on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 1978 Toxic Effects List, very few of which had been adequately tested.

Harmful or potentially harmful chemicals are pervasive in our lives. Some are intended to be inhaled, consumed or applied to our bodies, including food additives and synthetics, tobacco and alcohol, pharmaceutical drugs, cosmetics and toiletries, including scents and air fresheners. Many others are not, but get into our environments and ultimately our bodies anyway; they are in the paints, solvents and fabrics we use and the materials with which we build and furnish our homes, schools and workplaces. Some, of course — the pesticides and herbicides — were designed to be toxic to various life forms.

Much of this exposure has occurred since the end of the Second World War, after which the chemical industry really took off. One consequence is a phenomenon known as “ecotoxicity;” the widespread contamination of ecosystems and food chains with low levels of multiple persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals. As a result we, and all other species, carry a body burden of dozens, even hundreds, of these chemicals, with health consequences that are largely unknown — and probably unknowable, because of their potential interactions.

In the face of this onslaught, we recommended taking a much tougher line on controlling chemicals, suggesting: “It is better to ban a product subsequently found to be safe than to permit the use of a product subsequently found to be harmful.”

Because once a chemical is out in the environment, you can’t take it back or remove it — only nature can. Thus, we suggested reversing the onus of proof, no longer treating chemicals as if they were human, and thus innocent until proven guilty, but guilty until proven innocent.

To tackle the vast backlog of safety testing, we suggested introducing the concept of social utility, first testing those chemicals judged to be likely to have high utility and putting others — such as yet another scented product — at the back of the line, and thus not on the market. We argued for stronger controls on the advertising and marketing of chemicals, and we urged people and organizations to try to be as chemical-free as possible.

In addition, we urged the passage of an Environmental Bill of Rights, greater public involvement and transparency in the regulation of chemicals, and even a select committee or a royal commission to investigate the situation.

Fast forward 36 years and not much has changed — certainly none of what we recommended has happened. The Lancet commission reports that “pollution has been neglected” and its health effects underestimated, noting that “more than 140,000 new chemicals and pesticides have been synthesized since 1950.”

Of these, the 5,000 chemicals produced in the highest volume “have become widely dispersed in the environment and are responsible for nearly universal human exposure.”

Moreover, “fewer than half of these high-production-volume chemicals have undergone any testing for safety or toxicity” — note that is any testing! It is as if we are subjects in an unauthorized experiment to which we have never given consent.

Why have governments allowed this to happen? Why does human health count for so little? We should be outraged, and we should insist that governments place human well-being ahead of corporate profit and the economy.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.