'Huge gap' in Health Canada's ability to flag imported goods treated with pesticides

Health Canada has long been vigilant about pesticide levels in the foods Canadians consume. But more manufacturers, many offshore, have been treating non-food products — toys, sofas, clothing, paint — with antimicrobial pesticides to ward off fungus. An internal memo says the agency needs to do more to screen out such products.

Internal memo says agency has no mechanisms to deal with growing problem

An internal Health Canada report warns an increasing number of consumer goods, such as sofas and clothing, contain pesticides not declared on any label. (Shutterstock / Andrey_Popov)

Manufacturers are putting pesticides on consumer goods more often, creating a safety gap because Health Canada has traditionally tracked pesticides on foods rather than on clothing, sofas and other products for the home, a CBC News investigation has found.

"It's a huge gap," said Kathleen Cooper, a pesticides expert with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

"The first thing I'd want — especially parents would want — to know was whether their kids' clothing and shoes, and mattresses, and sheets, and all these textiles are treated with pesticides."

An internal Health Canada document dated June 20 outlines the pesticide problem, and notes Canada lacks safety checks to deal with it.

"Consumer and commercial products, such as clothing, paint and plastic articles, may be treated with an antimicrobial pesticide to extend the durability, shelf-life, or purported public health benefits of the article," says the memo, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

No mechanisms

But identifying those goods is challenging, the memo says, given the volume of items imported into the country and the fact most include no mention of pesticides.

"There are currently no mechanisms in place to identify which articles are treated, which pesticide was used for treatment, or to monitor imports of treated articles."

The memo says the department will focus on pesticides on textiles that have the "highest potential exposure," by talking to industry, importers and retailers about regulatory requirements. But, the document warns, "The pesticide industry and importers/retailers may react negatively to increased outreach."

Canada does have pesticide regulations, though they're aimed largely at food and plants. The agency monitors pesticides in a few consumer goods — such as anti-flea agents in dog collars — but does not routinely test for their presence in most consumer products.

Household hazardous waste products, including pesticides, come with clear warning labels. Many consumer goods containing pesticides do not, says an internal Health Canada report. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Health Canada says it is aware of at least four safety reports since 2009 in which consumer products found in Canada were treated with pesticides — including a sofa treated with dimethyl fumarate (DMF), a toxic chemical that damages skin.

Made-in-China sofas treated with DMF, an anti-fungal agent, caused chemical burns to at least 2,000 people in Britain in 2008-09, resulting in a first round of compensation payments worth more than $30 million. The chemical was contained in sachets within the sofas, and evaporated into the sofa leather and into victims' clothing when warmed, causing blisters.

The European Union banned all imported products containing DMF in 2009.

And in 2012, the same toxic chemical was found in children's shoes imported into Australia.

The Health Canada memo notes that the Canadian Consumer Products Safety Act, which sets the safety oversight for consumer goods sold here, specifically excludes pesticides from its purview.

Pesticide regulation is instead left to the department's Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which has for years focused on the more traditional use of pesticides to treat food products and plants.

Kathleen Cooper, a pesticide expert with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, says it's clear Canada needs stronger labelling laws. (Canadian Environmental Law Association)

A spokesperson for Health Canada said offshore manufacturers exporting goods must meet the pesticide standards of their destination markets.

"Most products imported into Canada are produced for global markets and must meet international pesticide regulatory requirements such as in the United States and the European Union, which are similar to requirements in Canada and are not expected to pose significant health risks to Canadians," Eric Morrissette said in an email.

"Health Canada is working with both the United States and the European Union, through the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, to collaborate on regulatory approaches for imported treated products."

But the internal memo notes that only the EU requires labels on products declaring whether pesticides were used, while the U.S. — like Canada — has no such labelling requirement.

'Lack of inspection'

Cooper said it's clear Canada needs stronger labelling laws. "This is another area where we need better disclosure of what's in and on products."

The internal memo appears to echo that concern. "Consumers are often unaware that the article has been treated with a pesticide, unless 'antibacterial' marketing claims are made (e.g., triclosan, silver) or specific trademarks are being used (e.g., Microban®)."

The document cites examples of consumer products sometimes treated with antimicrobial pesticides: paints, textiles, footwear, lumber, plastic articles such as children's toys, clothing, bedding, mattresses, baby furniture and flooring.

A pesticides expert with Équiterre, a Montreal-based environmental group, said the memo reveals two big issues with Health Canada's oversight of consumer goods.

"It's lack of inspection and enforcement of imported products into Canada," Annie Berube said in an interview. "But also, this seems to be a loophole in the regulations between what's considered a pesticide, and who's responsible when it's a pesticide found in consumer products."

Health Canada's lack of oversight of consumer products, including cosmetics, was also raised in the spring 2016 report from Canada's commissioner of the environment.

"Health Canada's Consumer Product Safety Program could not fully assure Canadians that its post-market oversight activities were working to protect the public by addressing or preventing dangers to human health posed by chemicals of concern in household consumer products and cosmetics," the report concluded.

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About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby

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