Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague, the member for Charlottetown for seconding this bill.
Water is a solvent. That means it picks up lots of substances and contaminants, some of which can be hazardous to public health, while others may be benign.
Water is a universal solvent. There is much that dissolves in water. Therefore, it is important to understand what and how much is in the water we drink that is capable of causing us harm. No doubt the popular assumption is that every glass of treated water is the same, that it is has the same composition and quality. In fact, the contents vary depending on the specific source water, and water sources vary geographically.
A 2006 report by the David Suzuki Foundation found that 53, that is 75%, of the guidelines for Canadian drinking water quality for chemical contaminants have weaker acceptable limits than at least one of the countries included in the comparison or than the World Health Organization’s limits. In other words, Canada’s maximum acceptable concentrations were lower than at least one country in the comparative survey. The most substantial differences were observed in comparing Canadian guidelines for pesticides to those in Australia and the European Union. The aim of Bill C-326 is to strengthen the quality of Canada’s drinking water over the long term by requiring that Health Canada, in developing its recommendations for Canada’s drinking water guidelines, takes account of any higher standards in any OECD country.
The rise of emerging contaminants, some potentially cancer causing, others possible endocrine disruptors, requires that the government consider best practices in comparable countries when developing Canada’s drinking water guidelines. Also, it is imperative that the public be aware of whether and why the government may have rejected a superior standard from another OECD country.
Bill C-326 aims to instill more rigour, accountability, and transparency in the development of drinking water guidelines in Canada by requiring Health Canada to conduct periodic reviews of drinking water standards in other advanced countries. The bill would require that the government, after comparing specific Canadian standards with another country’s higher standard for a particular contaminant, publicly justify why Canada is not adopting that other country’s superior standard, or conversely why we need to.
Bill C-326 is inspired by the work of the environmental NGO Ecojustice, which produces report cards on the state of Canada’s drinking water. It has called for Canada’s maximum allowable limits, or MACs, for specific contaminants in drinking water to be as high as the highest in any OECD country.
The intent of this bill is not to make Canadians worry about the quality of their drinking water. Of course, we all know that there are problems with the water supply in first nations communities, and I am very proud that the government has decided to commit the resources to end all drinking water advisories for first nations by 2021.
Municipal tap water is safe. Major multinationals like Coke and Pepsi, which sell bottled water under the Dasani and Aquafina brands respectively, actually get their water from publicly owned municipal systems, not from glacial lakes or pure groundwater. They draw water from the municipal systems of Mississauga, Brampton, Calgary, and Vancouver.
However, it will come as a surprise to many watching this debate that there is no national drinking water legislation in this country that guarantees all citizens a legal right to clean drinking water. What is more, drinking water standards are not consistent across the country. They vary by province and territory.
Our unique federal system makes addressing a matter of national concern as vital as ensuring consistent and high drinking water standards for all Canadians a challenge, which calls on us to smartly and creatively address the issue within the existing constitutional framework. In Canada, water is constitutionally a provincial resource. Authority and responsibility for water, including drinking water, falls to the provinces. The federal government’s jurisdiction is limited to drinking water in first nations, on ships, planes, and trains, national parks, and in National Defence facilities.
While Health Canada does not enjoy authority to impose legally binding drinking water standards across the country, it does have a role to play in developing provincial and territorial standards, namely through research, analysis, and evidence-based recommendations. This is why Bill C-326 invokes the Department of Health Act.
Briefly, Health Canada and the federal-provincial-territorial committee on drinking water develop and publish the guidelines for Canadian drinking water quality. Provincial and territorial governments then voluntarily adopt these guidelines, which they manage and enforce at their own discretion.
A specific guideline may include a number of different elements, including a maximum allowable concentration, which is a numerical value that describes a safe level of exposure to a particular contaminant over a lifetime of water consumption. In other words, this is the threshold above which human exposure to a contaminant in drinking water is deemed unacceptable in terms of known or suspected adverse health effects.
In establishing MACs, Health Canada relies almost exclusively on the review of published literature that includes toxicological information on a contaminant, and information on the treatment options that exist with respect to that contaminant. For this purpose, the department gathers information from academic articles, conference proceedings, and materials produced by other other jurisdictions. Consequently, guidelines may not necessarily be developed based on the most relevant or latest scientific evidence. In cases where there is no usable evidence available, there may be no guidelines at all.
Drinking water committee members, namely the provinces and territories, provide input to the discussion on guidelines. They will, for example, raise the technical and economic feasibility around achieving a specific guideline value or raise the real risk that the contaminant poses. In some cases, it may not pose a significant risk, and therefore a guideline may not be in order.
In reality, what we have in Canada is a patchwork of laws and regulations in an area that intuitively, to most Canadians, should involve a standardized national approach. Thus, only eight of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories have established legally enforceable drinking water standards. What is more, only 16 of 94 guidelines are applied uniformly across the country. Also, discrepancies exist along rural and urban lines where larger communities test for a wider range of contaminants than do smaller communities.
What we have here in Canada is a federal system tailored to our geographic, cultural, economic, and regional realities. This system, which is uniquely ours and is tailored to our needs, is something we need to learn to live with. Bill C-326 aims to work within our current constitutional framework.
The current constitutional framework is the context in which I have introduced Bill C-326, a bill that works to move us closer to more or less consistent high-quality drinking water standards for Canadians, wherever they may live. The nature of Canada’s drinking water regime can also be understood by comparing it with the drinking water regimes in other countries, notably the United States and European Union countries.
In the U.S., drinking water is regulated on a federal level through the Safe Drinking Water Act. Legally enforceable national regulatory limits exist for many contaminants. Some call this the “cookbook numbers approach”, because the system is focused on implementing specific numerical thresholds for an array of contaminants. In addition to legally binding limits, the EPA has non-enforceable guidelines for contaminants with aesthetic and/or cosmetic impacts.
Importantly, the EPA is required every five years to publish a contaminant candidates list for contaminants that may require future regulation. Every five years, the EPA must select five contaminants from the list and make decisions on regulations pertaining to them. The agency is also required to monitor at least 30 unregulated contaminants every five years. Publishing this list is a major strength of the U.S. system, from the standpoint of ensuring transparency, accountability, and progress in improving drinking water.
The EPA bases drinking water regulations on the results of scientific studies. This may have something to do with the more litigious nature of the American legal system, which provides an incentive to use science to better defend against possible future court action. While the EPA only regulates contaminants for which it has sufficient data, it continues to collect information and conduct research to fill data and information gaps where it lacks sufficient information to make a regulatory determination.
The European system uses the precautionary principle to establish drinking water guidelines. The general premise of the precautionary principle is that substances with unknown health effects should be kept to the lowest possible exposure, especially in cases where health- and environmental-impact data are lacking.
Canada’s drinking water standards are not firmly rooted in the precautionary principle. It has been said that Canada uses the precautionary principle selectively. In general, drinking water regulations and management activities in Canada prioritize contaminants that pose the greatest risk to public health; that is, microbial contaminants such as E. coli, whose effects are immediate and can be deadly. In Canada, the monitoring of known and emerging contaminants in drinking water pales in comparison to the U.S., the EU, and Australia, even though Canada and Australia take similar approaches to drinking water at the national level in that they both establish mere guidelines, as opposed to legally binding standards.
In particular, Canada lacks drinking water guidelines for suspected endocrine-disrupting compounds found in plastics, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products, such as cosmetics and toothpaste. One reason Canada lacks guidelines for many pharmaceuticals and personal care products suspected of being endocrine disrupters is related to Health Canada’s needing scientific information on health effects and the capabilities of treatment technologies before it will initiate a process to establish a MAC. Hopefully, by encouraging more study and analysis of discrepancies in contaminant standards between Canada and other advanced countries, Bill C-326 would encourage Health Canada to commission more primary studies on emerging contaminants with, say, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council or Canadian universities. Even where MACs exist in Canada’s drinking water guidelines, these appear to be less stringent than those of peer countries.
Simple measures are sometimes the most effective in creating change in complex areas of public policy. Sometimes it is not the most elaborate, detailed, and legal solution that bears fruit. I do not mean to elicit a partisan reaction, but I think this is an interesting example. The government decided to change the way senators are appointed as a way of bringing broad change to the nature of the Senate. This was a very simple measure. It was very simple and very different from the many elaborate models that had been proposed over the years that were seemingly not workable.
Bill C-326 takes a similar approach. By requiring that Health Canada better monitor and publicly report on comparisons between Canada’s drinking water guidelines and those in countries similar to Canada, the bill aims to spur progress in achieving, in the words of Dr. David Boyd, in the Suzuki Foundation report entitled The Water We Drink, “national standards for drinking water quality that are equal to or better than the highest standards provided in any other industrialized nation.”
Hopefully, Bill C-326 would, at the same time, contribute to the goal of ensuring that first nations, like all Canadians, can access drinking water that meets the highest international standards. The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, adopted by the previous government, essentially defers to provincial regulations for drinking water for first nations. Provincial regulations are influenced by the guidelines for drinking water quality. It is intended, therefore, that through its influence on these national guidelines, Bill C-326 would, among other things, impact positively on the quality of first nations’ drinking water in the long run.