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Suckers for science



A month ago, Canada took the extreme measure of declaring Bisphenol A a toxic substance, which will in the future determine how the plastic additive can be used in products sold across the country. Last week we had the federal government calling for a voluntary ban on jewelry made with cadmium, which can cause serious health problems if ingested.

Around the same time the David Suzuki Foundation (www.davidsuzuki.org) released a "Dirty Dozen" list of toxins found in cosmetic products, both as a way to educate consumers as well as to apply pressure on governments and companies to get these toxins off the market.

On the one hand we have the government finally acknowledging that a toxic substance is toxic and asking for a voluntary ban on another substance that is also widely known to be toxic. On the other hand we have scientists telling us that other substances that are known to be toxic are in cosmetic products that anyone can purchase over the counter.

All good things, but it raises some important questions:

Why did it take so long to declare BPA toxic? Why only a voluntary ban on cadmium jewelry? And why are so many toxins in everyday products?

The most obvious reason is that, in Canada, the onus is on government to prove without a doubt that a substance is toxic and to either ban or regulate the use of that substance. Instead of requiring companies to prove things are safe, it's all up to the feds and their limited resources. I once read that it takes about seven years to properly study a material or compound for safety and that there are about 10,000 substances out there in consumer products that haven't been tested by government. We err on the side of business rather than on the side of caution.

Part of the problem is that scientists themselves are reluctant to say anything is certain, even if they're 99.9 per cent sure a substance is toxic. Since it's almost impossible to be 100 per cent sure of anything in this world, even the most well-established science is still presented as theories and hypotheses.

On top of that, we're in an era where science is becoming more and more politicized, where scientists on the government payroll are having their work modified or shelved if the results disagree with the official policy.

So where do you go for the genuine facts?

For Canadians, since last week, the answer is PublicScience.ca, a new web portal launched by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada. Under the banner "Science that Protects You," the website takes all the middle men in government and industry out of science reporting and puts the unvarnished facts on the table.

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