IN THE NEWS ~ Op-ed ~ Buyer, be aware

Buyer, be aware
By Peter Julian
Georgia Straight,
© 2009 Vancouver Free Press

When Canadians go shopping, as I myself do, we often scan the labels on the products we are about to purchase. We look for fat and trans fat content, sugar and salt content, the amount of calories, vitamin and mineral content. We also look for symbols indicating if these products are environmentally friendly, organic, fair-trade certified, and whether they are made in Canada.

Out of all the labels and symbols that exist, we are still missing crucial information. That is the labelling related to information on the dozens of toxic chemicals found in our products that may cause cancer, the leading cause of death in Canada, and other illnesses. Why is it that we cannot find any information on these chemicals that we know exist in many of our products, such as foods, household cleaners, and cosmetics?

Canada already regulates the labelling of products; for example, potentially poisonous or explosive products have clear, easy to recognize labels printed on their packaging as a warning to consumers. However, this system of labels does not cover other critical dangers such as substances that pose a toxic health risk or damage the environment.

So, when it comes to products that we buy everyday, there is no question: Canadian citizens should have the right to know and be aware of the dangerous ingredients in some of these everyday products.

While this type of labelling system has already been in place for years in the state of California and in the European Union, our federal government has not shown leadership on this issue. Yet, one of the most important duties of Parliament is to ensure the health and safety of all Canadians.

This “right to know” is precisely what I had in mind when I recently tabled a private member’s bill—“An Act to ensure that warning labels are affixed to products containing toxic substances”—in the House of Commons on May 29.

About 95 percent of Canadians support “right to know” legislation, according to recent polls. There is a consensus among Canadians that consumers have a right to know.

My bill addresses this problem by requiring that any product containing substances known, for example, by the World Health Organization, the European Union, or Health Canada to be potentially toxic, be labelled clearly. By doing so, consumers can make informed decisions at the store, before they chose to buy a product. This bill will also set clear rules for domestic as well as imported products and will make violations a criminal offense, with fines and jail time as punishment for corporate offenders.

My bill would help to protect and empower citizens to address this problem, and would also put pressure on the industry to recognize the dangers of these chemicals and substances and eradicate them.

Citizens would also be in a better position to put pressure on the industry and the federal government to eliminate and ban unsafe substances from everyday products once they are able to actually see what is going into them in the first place.

I firmly believe that the health and safety of Canadians is not a partisan issue and that my bill provides an important opportunity for parliamentarians to stand up for Canadians’ right to know and empower consumers across the country.

In the hopes of creating a healthier and safer Canada, this bill needs the support of all parliamentarians and Canadians from across the country. Together, we can take a step towards protecting our loved ones and neighbours from toxic products.

Peter Julian is the New Democrat MP for Burnaby-New Westminster.