Scrolling the news, I came across an article encouraging self-care as an antidote to the pandemic. I was immediately incensed at the suggestion that meditation was the solution to this public health problem.
Disclosure: I'm a sociologist. I work for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), an environmental health organization led by physicians and other health professionals. I look at health through the context of broader social, political, institutional, and economic forces. In other words, I use a public health lens.
The problem with self-care advice is the inference that individual actions determine health outcomes or that behavioural choice can sufficiently overcome systemic and structural influences. The reality is that I can't simply draw a straight line from my behaviours to the state of my health. Legislation, regulation, policy, and social factors influence health outcomes.
Our current realities reinforce that individual action is not enough. We are in the midst of a multi-year pandemic. We are also in the midst of the climate crisis. And environmental conditions where toxic exposures are present are an ongoing ecological and human health problem. These phenomena capture governmental concern, energy, and action. Governments know systemic interventions are necessary for individual and public health despite prominent personal responsibility messaging. But what governments are doing right now is not enough.
We need evidence-based public health interventions to address ongoing COVID-19 infections (and related impacts). We need solid strategies for a just recovery from the pandemic while at the same time tackling the climate crisis. And we urgently need robust reform of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), which was last updated in 1999.
Picture yourself in 1999. How old were you? What were you doing? How is the world different from then? Think about how environmental conditions, exposures, and pollutants have changed in that time. The total warming effect on global temperature is driven by greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from the burning of fossil fuels and industrial processes, which have increased since the last CEPA update. Some estimates suggest that more than 100,000 substances and chemicals are in commerce today, some of which have only recently been introduced.
Authors of a recently published study conclude chemical pollution has crossed a “planetary health boundary” — the limits of nature to support human activity — and argue that stronger regulation and a cap on chemical production and release are necessary, as are carbon targets to end greenhouse gas emissions. Under Canada's Chemicals Management Plan and through CEPA, substances undergo a risk assessment and management process. But there are substances and updated risk knowledge that aren't yet captured under the lagging update to CEPA.
It is now more than two decades since Parliament passed CEPA, and this cornerstone pollution-prevention law needs to be reformed to address today's environmental health threats.
Neither meditation, a long walk, nor reducing personal stressors will solve the complex environmental health problems we face. These activities might be suitable coping mechanisms for individuals’ mental health, but they are not the solutions we need to the many interconnected threats to our health and well-being — now and in the future.
We need political will and government action. Leading environmental and health groups in Canada are calling on all federal parties to prioritize CEPA modernization in this session of Parliament and to pass a strengthened bill before the end of the year. As a politician acknowledged in a recent meeting, we need politicians to stop fighting each other and start fighting for environmental health.
Opinion: We need co-operation and collaboration by all federal parties to pass a strengthened bill within the year to bring CEPA into the 21st century, writes @JANEMCARTHUR11. #cdnpoli #FixCEPA #environmental #health #EnvironmentalJustice
CEPA reform is a critical need for a just and green recovery. Bill S-5 introduced in the Senate on February 9, 2022, included much-needed improvements. However, the bill must be strengthened further to deliver a stronger environmental protection law that reflects our current conditions and knowledge. The House Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development should initiate early consideration of the bill while the Senate debates and votes on this legislation to ensure a strong CEPA becomes law as soon as possible.
For the present and future health of people living and working in Canada, we need meaningful recognition of a human right to a healthy environment. The UN recently declared that access to a healthy environment is a human right, serving as a call to action for all nations to take bold steps. Importantly, this is not incommensurable with economic improvement.
For the present and future health of people living and working in Canada, we need a bill that will close the loopholes on toxic substances of concern and require prohibition while addressing the cumulative effects of chemicals, with clear timelines for assessments and implementation of chemicals management.
For the present and future health of people living and working in Canada, we need a law that removes barriers to citizens bringing forward concerns about toxic exposures and provides and protects our right to know about toxic substances to which we are exposed.
Today's environmental health realities must be reflected in legislation to be protective and preventive. We need to think for the long term. COVID-19 recovery, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and CEPA reform require action now for the future of public health and environmental justice.
We need co-operation and collaboration by all federal parties to pass a strengthened bill within the year to bring CEPA into the 21st century.
Meditate on that.
Jane E. McArthur is toxics campaign director with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). Jane has a PhD in sociology and social justice and her work over the last 30 years has been in communications, research, and advocacy on environmental and occupational health issues.