We always need to be concerned about potentially dangerous chemical substances. There are many laws and standards in place to protect us from risks. Generally, we do not need to be concerned about the chemical substances with which we come in contact, as long as we exercise caution.
When handled responsibly, most chemical substances we encounter on a daily basis do not affect our health. However, any chemical substance can be harmful when we are exposed to a large enough quantity.
Some chemical substances can burn or poison people on contact. Others can cause serious long-term illnesses such as cancer. The risk depends on what the chemical substance is, the quantity required to cause effects, the amount and length of time of exposure, and how that exposure takes place (in food or air or water, for example).
Because chemical substances are so common, we are exposed to them all the time. Many of the products we use every day are composed of chemical substances, and in some cases, these can be transferred to people. Air, soil and water pollution can also lead to higher than normal levels of chemical substances in people.
Some chemical substances have properties that make exposure more likely. There are those that take a long time to break down and can travel long distances from the source of pollution (persistent); others find their way into living organisms, where they can build up to very high levels and can be passed along up the food chain (bioaccumulative). PCBs are an example of a once commonly used substance that is persistent and bioaccumulative. Even though they were discontinued decades ago, PCBs continue to show up in our food and the environment, and require continuously stronger regulations.
In rare cases, human exposure to chemical substances can cause serious health problems. However, in most cases, levels of chemical substances in the environment are well below harmful levels.
Some chemical substances are inherently dangerous. Some cause burns, damage internal organs, or poison people who come into contact with them either directly (for example, by touching them) or indirectly (for example, by eating food that has been contaminated).
These types of effects usually happen immediately or soon after contact. These are acute toxic effects.
The harmful properties of chemical substances with acute toxic effects are usually well known. In most cases, simple steps (following the directions on safety labels, for instance) can be taken to prevent harm.
Other chemical substances may cause harm in much smaller doses administered over longer periods of time. These are chronic toxic effects, and can include cancer, birth defects and developmental problems.
Human health effects from chemical substances are treated very seriously by the Government of Canada. Suspicious chemical substances are evaluated by scientists to determine the effects of even the lowest levels in the environment. Like other governments around the world, the Government of Canada puts in place measures to manage or control chemical substances that are thought to pose a risk.
The Government of Canada plays a key role in protecting us from the risks of chemical substances under a number of laws. Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, for instance, scientists at Health Canada and Environment Canada assess chemical substances in the environment to determine if they pose a risk to human health and/or the environment. The Government of Canada also develops regulations and other measures based on the findings of these assessments. The Chemicals Management Plan improves on those efforts and projects a new investment of $300 million over the next four years for risk assessment, management, monitoring and accountability.
While the Government of Canada plays a key role, every order of government is involved. Municipalities run programs and make rules on such pollution prevention activities as recycling. The provinces and territories govern a number of areas related to risks of chemical substances including, for example, industry permits and licences. The provinces and territories also look after the management and delivery of health services for their residents.
The Government of Canada works with all orders of government so that public health is a top priority and high standards for health are applied across the country.
Information is regularly made public on the Health Canada and Environment Canada Websites, where research findings and decisions about many chemical substances can be found.
In addition to information from the Government of Canada, there are sources of information that can help with the decisions made on a daily basis. Following the label instructions on products used around the house can help to reduce exposure to the chemical substances they contain. Municipal waste and recycling programs provide information on proper disposal of products containing chemical substances so that they will not end up in landfills, where they can be released into the environment.
A wealth of information can be found on the Health Canada Website, including the It's Your Health fact sheet series, which has useful information on many health-related topics, including chemical substances.