HEALTH OF ABORIGINAL PEOPLES 2002
A CMA Policy Statement
That the federal government adopt a comprehensive strategy for improving the health of Aboriginal peoples that involves a partnership among governments, non-governmental organizations, universities and the Aboriginal communities.
2) The Need to Address Health Determinants
The health status of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples is a result of a broad range of factors: social, biological, economic, political, educational and environmental. The complexity and interdependence of these health determinants suggest that the health status of Aboriginal peoples is unlikely to be improved significantly by increasing the quantity of health services. Instead, inequities within a wide range of social and economic factors should be addressed; for example:
interactions with the justice system
racism and social marginalization
water supply and waste disposal
housing quality and infrastructure
cultural identity, (for example, long-term effects of the residential school legacy.)
That all stakeholders work to improve provision for the essential needs of Aboriginal peoples and communities that affect their health (e.g. housing, employment, education, water supply).
3) The Importance of Self-Determination
One characteristic of successful Aboriginal communities is a high degree of self-efficacy and control over their own circumstances. This empowerment can take many forms, from developing community-driven health initiatives to determining how to use lands.
It is increasingly recognized that self-determination in cultural, social, political and economic life improves the health of Aboriginal peoples and their communities, and that Aboriginal peoples can best determine their requirements and the solutions to their problems. Therefore, the CMA encourages and supports the Aboriginal peoples in their move toward increasing self-determination and community control. A just and timely settlement of land claims is one means by which Aboriginal communities can achieve this self-determination and self-sufficiency.
That governments and other stakeholders:
Settle land claims and land use issues expeditiously;
Work toward resolving issues of self-determination for Aboriginal peoples and their communities in areas of cultural, social, political and economic life.
4) Community Control of Health Services
Control by Aboriginal peoples of health and social services is increasing across Canada as part of a broader transfer of control of political power, resources and lands. This transfer has not progressed at the same pace across all Aboriginal communities; the needs of Urban Aboriginal peoples, for example, are only beginning to be addressed.
CMA supports the development of community-driven models for delivery of health care and health promotion, responsive to the culture and needs of individual communities. Successful community-driven models of health care delivery generally recognize that the Aboriginal concept of health is holistic in nature, incorporating mental, emotional and spiritual as well as physical components. Translating this concept into practice may involve:
Development of primary care models that are grounded within Aboriginal culture at a local level;
Integration of disease treatment services with health promotion and health education programs, and with traditional healing practices;
Integration of health and social services;
Interprofessional collaboration within a multi-disciplinary team.
CMA also supports programs to increase the involvement of Aboriginal peoples in professional and other decision-making roles affecting the health of their community – for example, increased representation in health-care management positions, and on health facility boards where there is a significant Aboriginal population.
That all stakeholders actively encourage the development of integrated, holistic primary care service delivery relevant to the needs and culture of Aboriginal communities and under community control.
5) Cultural Responsiveness in the Patient/Physician Relationship
As mentioned above, the concept of “health” in Aboriginal culture is holistic and incorporates many components. The concepts of continuity, wholeness and balance within and among people are important to Aboriginal culture, as is a close affinity with the natural environment – both in practical and spiritual senses , which emphasises the importance of stewardship of the land as a component of individual and community health maintenance for present and future generations.
Physicians should work in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples and groups to promote a greater understanding and acceptance of their respective philosophies and approaches. This could include:
an openness and respect for traditional medicine and traditional healing practices (e.g. sweat lodges, herbal medicines, healing circles). This should be balanced with a recognition that not all Aboriginal people, whether First Nation, Métis or Inuit, adhere to or understand their traditional ceremonial practices.
improved cross-cultural awareness in physicians, which could be facilitated by greater contact with their local Aboriginal communities, better understanding of local Aboriginal cultures, history and current setting,
development of cross-cultural patient-physician communication skills.
a) That educational initiatives in cross-cultural awareness of Aboriginal health issues be developed for the Canadian population, and in particular for health care providers,
b) that practice tools and resources be developed to support physicians (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) and other health care professionals practicing in Aboriginal communities.
6) Access to Health Services
Canada is often considered to have one of the best health care systems in the world and is typically described as providing “universal access”. However, our system does not provide equal access to services for all people living in Canada – the most underserviced being those in northern Canada, which contains many Aboriginal communities.
Several kinds of access problems exist in Aboriginal communities:
Lack of access to employment, adequate housing, nutritious food, clean water and other social or economic determinants of health.
Factors that impede access to health care services, particularly in remote locations; for example, language and cultural differences, and the difficulty of transporting patients to tertiary centres.
Lack of specific services (for example, mental health services) for Aboriginal peoples in many regions of Canada. Specific groups, such as women and the elderly, have unique and distinct needs that should be addressed.
Program delivery that involves multiple federal, provincial and municipal funding agencies. Physicians and patients alike have trouble obtaining information about and entry into existing programs and funding for new programs because of jurisdictional confusion.
CMA has previously recommended that the Canadian health system develop and apply agreed-upon standards for timely access to care. This includes the need to increase timely and appropriate access by Aboriginal peoples to health care and health promotion services, geared to different segments of the population according to their needs.
a) That governments and other stakeholders simplify and clarify jurisdictional responsibilities with respect to Aboriginal health at the federal, provincial and municipal level, with a goal of simplifying access to service delivery.
b) That strategies be explored to increase access to health services by remote communities; for example, through the use of technology (e.g. Web sites, telemedicine) to connect them with academic medical centres.
7) Health Human Resources
There is an urgent need to increase the training, recruitment and retention of Aboriginal health care providers. The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended that a cadre of 10,000 Aboriginal health care and social service workers be trained to meet the needs of a complex and diverse community. While progress has been made in recent years, an intensive focus on recruitment, training and retention is required in order to achieve this goal.
A comprehensive health human resource strategy should be developed, to increase the recruitment, training and retention of Aboriginal students in medicine and other health disciplines. Such a strategy could include:
Outreach programs to interest Aboriginal young people in the health sciences.
Access and support programs for Aboriginal medical students.
Residency positions for recently graduated Aboriginal physicians or physicians wishing to practice in Aboriginal populations, including re-entry positions for physicians currently in practice.
Mentoring and leadership-development programs for Aboriginal medical students, residents and physicians.
Programs to counter racism and discrimination in the health-care system.
Initiatives to recruit and train Community Health Representatives/ Workers, birth attendants and other para-professionals within Aboriginal communities.
a) That CMA and others work to develop a health human resource strategy aimed at improving the recruitment, training, retention of Aboriginal physicians and other health-care workers;
b) That medical and other health faculties increase access and support programs to encourage enrollment of Aboriginal students.
8) Health Information
Information about the health status and health care experience of Aboriginal peoples, is essential for future planning and advocacy. For Aboriginal peoples to effectively develop self-determination in health care delivery, they should have access to data that can be converted into useful information on their population. The “OCAP” principle (ownership, control, access to and possession of health data) is seen as integral to First Nation community empowerment, but may prove acceptable to other Aboriginal groups as well.
A considerable amount of data currently exists, though there are gaps in coverage, particularly regarding Métis, Inuit and urban and rural off-reserve First Nations populations. This data can come from a variety of federal and provincial/territorial sources, including periodic surveys, federal censuses, Aboriginal Peoples Survey data holdings, and also regional physician and hospital utilization statistics. However, jurisdictional and ownership issues have hindered Aboriginal people from accessing and making use of this data.
CMA supports the development and maintenance of mechanisms to systematically collect and analyze longitudinal health information for Aboriginal people, and the removal of barriers that prevent Aboriginal organizations from fully accessing information in government databases. Aboriginal health information should be subject to guarantees of privacy and confidentiality. The CMA urges relevant government departments to ensure that revisions to the Indian Act do not infringe on the privacy of health information of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
That the Government of Canada support the First Nations and Inuit Regional Longitudinal Health Survey Process, and the First Nations and Inuit Health Information System, and parallel interests for the Métis and Inuit. These programs should be operated under the control of their respective Aboriginal communities
The CMA supports culturally relevant research into the determinants of Aboriginal health and effective treatment and health-promotion strategies to address them. Specifically, the CMA supports the efforts of the Institute of Aboriginal Peoples’ Health at the Canadian Institute for Health Research, in addressing the needs of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.
Aboriginal peoples should be involved in research design, data collection and analysis; research should support the communities as they build capacity and develop initiatives to address their health needs. Ideally, research should address not only determinants of ill health but also the reasons for positive health outcomes.
The CMA also acknowledges the need to communicate research results to Aboriginal communities to help them develop and evaluate health programs. In particular there is an urgent need among Aboriginal communities for the sharing of successes.
That government and other stakeholders
Support Aboriginal peoples and communities in the development of Aboriginal research and the means of interpreting its findings.
Make public communication of health research results a priority in order to facilitate its use by Aboriginal communities.
CMA’S CONTINUED COMMITMENT
The Canadian Medical Association, consistent with its mandate to advocate for the highest standards of health and health care in Canada, will continue to work with the Aboriginal community and other stakeholders on activities addressing the following issue areas:
Research and Practice Enhancement:.
Public and Community Health Programming:.
Advocacy for healthy public policy.
November 15, 2002
The Role of Health Professionals in Tobacco Cessation - Joint position statement
This statement was developed cooperatively by the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists, Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, Canadain Dental Hygienists Association, Canadian Medical Association, Canadian Nurses Association, and Canadian Physiotherapy Association.
There is a role for every Canadian health professional in tobacco-use cessation.1 Tobacco use2 inflicts a heavy burden on Canadians' health and on the Canadian health-care system, and health professionals can advocate effectively for tobacco-use cessation at the clinical and public health levels.
As providers of client and patient-centered services, health professionals are involved in tobacco cessation by:
* assessing and documenting all forms of tobacco use, willingness to quit and risk of exposure to second-hand smoke;
* discussing with clients and patients the negative health effects of tobacco use and exposure to second-hand smoke, and the health and other benefits (e.g., financial) of becoming tobacco free;
* offering to help, and helping, tobacco users to quit;
* offering a variety of tobacco-cessation strategies (e.g., counselling, behavioural therapy, self-help materials, pharmacotherapy) as appropriate to their knowledge, skills and tools;
* providing strategies for non-smokers to help them reduce their exposure to second-hand smoke;
* being knowledgeable about and providing referrals to community-based initiatives and resources;
* recognizing that relapse occurs frequently, and conducting follow-up assessment and intervention;
* tailoring interventions to the needs of specific populations (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity, diagnosis, socio-economic status); and
* using a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach.
As educators and researchers, health professionals are involved in tobacco cessation by:
* including education on tobacco-cessation strategies and strategies for resisting tobacco use in basic education programs for health professionals;
* providing professional development programs for health professionals on tobacco cessation;
* conducting research to encourage and improve health professionals' knowledge and provision of tobacco cessation; and
* communicating research evidence about tobacco-cessation strategies.
As administrators of health-care organizations, health professionals are involved in tobacco cessation by:
* offering training on tobacco cessation as part of employee orientation;
* providing access to professional education on tobacco cessation for employees;
* enforcing applicable bans on tobacco wherever health professionals are employed (e.g., health-care facilities, private homes); and
* ensuring that tobacco-cessation programs and tobacco-free workplaces are included in accreditation standards.
As public health advocates, health professionals are involved in tobacco cessation by:
* increasing public awareness that health professionals can help people remain tobacco free or stop using tobacco; and
* advocating for federal, provincial and territorial governments' investment in comprehensive tobacco control that includes programs, legislation and policies to prevent the uptake of tobacco and reduce tobacco use (e.g., bans on tobacco advertising). Programs must focus on health promotion and include community-based initiatives.
Tobacco is an addictive and harmful product, and its use is the leading cause of preventable death in Canada.3 Each year in Canada, more than 37,000 people die prematurely due to tobacco use.4 Approximately 17 per cent of the population 15 years of age and older (about 4.8 million Canadians) smoke.5 Strong evidence has revealed that smoking is associated with more than two dozen diseases and conditions.6 The economic costs of tobacco use are estimated at $17 billion annually ($4.4 billion in direct health-care costs and $12.5 billion in indirect costs such as lost productivity).7
Second-hand smoke is also harmful. Each year, more than 1,000 non-smoking Canadians die due to second-hand smoke.8 Exposure to second-hand smoke is the number two cause of lung cancer (smoking is the number one cause).9 Second-hand smoke can also aggravate allergies, bring about asthma attacks and increase the risk of bronchitis and pneumonia.10 Research also suggests that there may be a link between second-hand smoke and the risk of breast cancer.11
Tobacco use is the result of the complex interaction of individual and social factors, such as socio-economic status, having family members who smoke and exposure to marketing tactics of the tobacco industry. Reduction and elimination of tobacco use requires comprehensive, multi-faceted strategies addressing both physical dependence and social context. Such strategies will include:
* prevention - helping to keep non-users from starting to use tobacco;
* cessation - helping current smokers to quit, and helping prevent relapse; and
* protection - protecting all Canadians from the harmful effects of tobacco use and from the influences of tobacco industry marketing.
Prevention is the most important strategy of the three; being tobacco-free is a vital element of a healthy active life. Thus, for current tobacco users, quitting is the single most effective action they can take to enhance the quality and length of their lives.
Most tobacco users would like to improve their health, and in a Canadian survey 30 per cent of all smokers stated that they intended to quit as means of doing so.12 Indeed, in studies in Canada, the U.K. and Germany, smokers rated health concerns and current health problems as the primary reason for wanting to quit;13 other reasons why smokers quit include the cost of cigarettes14 and persistent advice to quit from family15 and health professionals.16 However, the relapse rate is very high because of the addictive nature of tobacco.17 Most smokers attempt to quit several times before they finally succeed.
Smoking cessation counselling is widely recognized as an effective clinical strategy. Even a brief intervention by a health professional significantly increases the cessation rate.18 Furthermore, counselling programs that initiate follow-up calls to smokers as a "proactive" measure have been found to increase smoking-cessation rates by 50 per cent.19 The majority of Canadians consult a health professional at least once a year,20 creating several "teachable moments" when they may be more motivated than usual to change unhealthy behaviours.21 A smoker's likelihood of quitting increases when he or she hears the message from a number of health-care providers from a variety of disciplines.22
However, health professionals encounter barriers that require solutions, notably:
- the need for better education for health professionals (e.g., how to identify smokers quickly and easily, which treatments are most effective, how such treatments can be delivered);
- the need to allow for sufficient time to provide counselling;
- the need to focus on preventive care by
* increasing funding for preventive care (e.g., providing reimbursement for smoking cessation interventions, follow-up or support); and
* encouraging health-care settings to facilitate preventive care (e.g., access to quick reference guides or tools to identify people with specific risk factors);
- the need to increase public awareness of the smoking cessation services a health professional can provide; and
- the need to recognize the frustration associated with the high rate of relapse. Because of the powerful nature of tobacco dependence, smokers often go through a long period of reaching readiness before they finally quit.
Bao Y., Duan N., & Fox S. A. (2006). Is some provider advice on smoking cessation better than no advice? An instrument variable analysis of the 2001 National Health Interview Survey. Health Services Research, 41(6), 2114-2135
Breitling, L. P., Rothenbacher, D., Stegmaier, C., Raum, E., & Brenner, H. (2009). Older smokers' motivation and attempts to quit smoking. Deutsches Arzteblatt International, 106(27), 451-455.
Canadian Action Network for the Advancement, Dissemination and Adoption of Practice-informed Tobacco Treatment. (2008). Dynamic guidelines for tobacco control in Canada Version 1.0 [Wiki clinical practice guidelines]. Toronto: Author.
Canadian Cancer Society. (2010). Second-hand smoke is dangerous. Toronto: Author. Retrieved May 19, 2010, from http://www.cancer.ca/canada-wide/prevention/quit%20smoking/second-hand%20smoke.aspx
Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, (2006). The costs of substance abuse in Canada in 2002. Ottawa: Author.
Canadian Lung Association. (2006). Smoking and tobacco: Second-hand smoke. Retrieved June 14, 2010, from http://www.lung.ca/protect-protegez/tobacco-tabagisme/second-secondaire/hurts-nuit_e.php
Canadian Dental Hygienists Association. (2004). Tobacco use cessation services and the role of the dental hygienist - a CDHA position paper. Canadian Journal of Dental Hygiene, 38(6), 260-279.
Canadian Medical Association. (2008). Tobacco control [Policy statement]. Ottawa: Author.
Fiore, M. C., Jaen, C. R., Baker, T. B., Bailey, W. C., Benowitz, N. L., & Curry, S. J. (2008). Treating tobacco use and dependence: 2008 update [Clinical practice guideline]. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Health Canada. (2009). Smoking and your body: Health effects of smoking. Ottawa: Author. Retrieved June 17, 2010, from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hc-ps/tobac-tabac/body-corps/index-eng.php
Health Canada. (2007). Overview of health risks of smoking. Ottawa: Author. Retrieved June 17, 2010, from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hc-ps/tobac-tabac/res/news-nouvelles/risks-risques-eng.php
Nabalamba, A, & Millar, W. J. (2007). Going to the doctor [Statistics Canada, catalogue 82-003]. Health Reports, 18(1), 23-35. Retrieved January 26, 2011, from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2006002/article/doctor-medecin/9569-eng.pdf
Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. (2005). Smoking in Canada: A statistical snapshot of Canadian smokers. Ottawa: Author. Retrieved May 14, 2010, from http://www.smoke-free.ca/pdf_1/SmokinginCanada-2005.pdf
Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario. (2007). Integrating smoking cessation into daily nursing practice [Nursing best practice guideline]. Toronto: Author.
Ross, H., Blecher, E., Yan, L., & Hyland, A. (2010) Do cigarette prices motivate smokers to quit? New evidence from the ITC survey. Addiction, November 2010.
Shields, M. (2004). A step forward, a step back: Smoking cessation and relapse. National Population Health Survey, Vol. 1, No. 1. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
Statistics Canada. (2009). Canadian tobacco use monitoring survey (CTUMS): CTUMS 2009 wave 1 survey results. Ottawa: Author. Retrieved January 25, 2011, from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hc-ps/tobac-tabac/research-recherche/stat/_ctums-esutc_2009/w-p-1_sum-som-eng.php
Stead, L. F., Lancaster, T., & Perera, R. (2006). Telephone counselling for smoking cessation (review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 3.
Vangeli, E., & West, R. (2008). Sociodemographic differences in triggers to quit smoking: findings from a national survey. Tobacco Control, 17(6), 410-415.
Young, R.P., Hopkins, R.J., Smith, M., & Hogarth, D.K. (2010). Smoking cessation: The potential role of risk assessment tools as motivational triggers. Post Graduate Medical Journal, 86(1011), 26-33.
Tobacco: The role of health professionals in smoking cessation [Joint position statement]. (2001)
1 For detailed recommendations and guidelines for tobacco treatment related to health professionals, see Canadian Action Network for the Advancement, Dissemination and Adoption of Practice-informed Tobacco Treatment, (2008); Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, (2007); and Canadian Dental Hygienists Association, (2004).
2 For the purpose of this position statement, tobacco includes products that can be inhaled, sniffed, sucked or chewed (e.g., flavoured cigarillos, kreteks, chewing tobacco, moist snuff, betel or qat, hookah or shisha, bidis, cigars and pipes).
3 (Health Canada, 2009)
4 (Health Canada, 2007)
5 (Statistics Canada, 2009)
6 (Health Canada, 2007)
7 (Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2006)
8 (Canadian Cancer Society, 2010)
9 (Canadian Lung Association, 2006)
10 (Canadian Cancer Society, 2010)
11 (Canadian Cancer Society, 2010)
12 (Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, 2005)
13 (Vangeli & West, 2008; Ontario Tobacco Research Unit - Tobacco Informatics Monitoring System (TIMS), 2008; Breitling, Rothenbacher, Stegmaier, Raum & Brenner, 2009)
14 (Ross, Blecher, Yan & Hyland, 2010)
15 (Young, Hopkins, Smith & Hogarth, 2010)
16 (Bao, Duan & Fox, 2006)
17 (Fiore et al., 2008; Shields, 2004)
18 (Fiore et al., 2008)
19 (Stead, Lancaster & Perera, 2006)
20 (Nabalamba & Millar, 2007)
21 (Canadian Medical Association, 2008)
22 (Fiore et al., 2008)
Industrialization and manufacturing have had enormous positive benefits for humankind, but the consequences of hazardous by-products (chemical contamination) to human health and the environment are less well recognized. A major incident such as Bhopal is an unequivocal example of catastrophic poisoning caused by industry. However, more subtle human health impacts can result from low levels of exposure to chemical and industrial by-products from agriculture, consumer products, manufacturing, and even medical sources. Chemicals from industrial sources have been found in the soil, water, air, food and human tissue. Due to improving technology, even minuscule amounts of potentially noxious substances can be detected.
Some exposures warrant remedial action, but in others the health impact may be negligible: the toxin, dose, route and duration of exposure must be considered. Of course, there are potentially toxic substances that have been found to pose little or no harm to human health, but there are many more for which the health effects are unknown. A substantial knowledge gap exists in that the effects of many chemical agents have not been fully studied. As a result, rigorous surveillance and assessment to ensure potential health impacts are reduced or avoided is necessary. Chemicals like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) can persist in the environment or in living beings long after the product was pulled from the market, making it essential that full and rigorous testing of new and existing chemicals is undertaken. Finally, research is needed to determine whether emerging issues, such as the presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, pose a legitimate threat to human health.
Chemicals, properly managed, can and will continue to provide enormous benefits to society, but caution is warranted because of the potential health consequences. Provided below is a discussion of certain classes of chemicals that need to be regulated, monitored and properly researched.
Agriculture represents the largest component of the global economy. Rising pressures to meet the needs of a growing population have resulted in the mechanization of farming, and the widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides.1 Fertilizer and pesticide run-off has been found in soil, water and the human food supply.2 Approximately 40 chemicals classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as known, probable, or possible human carcinogens, are EPA registered pesticides available on the open market.3 Long-term low dose pesticide exposure has been linked to various cancers, immune suppression, hormonal disruption, reproductive abnormalities, birth defects, and developmental and behavioural problems.4 Certain pesticides are also known to be persistent in the human body.5 While many individual pesticides can be safely used, there is a lack of research on the effect of certain pesticides when used in combination.
Modern technologies have led to advances with a positive impact on the quality of human life. While newer consumer products have benefits over earlier materials, their use is not without side effects. Both the chemicals used to make these products and those that form key components of the products themselves may be harmful. Bisphenol A (BPA) is an industrial chemical added to many hard plastic bottles and to metal based food and beverage cans since the 1960s.6 In August 2010, Statistics Canada reported that measurable levels of BPA were found in the urine of 91 per cent of Canadians aged six to 79.7 Concerns have been raised about effects on the brain, behaviour, and prostate gland from exposure to this chemical, particularly in fetuses, infants, and children.8 In 2008, Canada banned BPA in infant bottles.9 In October 2010, Canada went a step further by becoming the first jurisdiction in the world to declare BPA toxic.10
With the growing demand for consumer products, there has been a corresponding growth in manufacturing. Manufacturing is one of the biggest contributors to outdoor air pollution, and contributes to soil and water pollution.11 In 2004, US industry released 1.8 billion pounds of potentially toxic chemicals. Exposure to some of these chemicals has been linked to severe health effects, including cancer. 12 One of the released chemicals, dioxin, can be harmful at very low levels. Dioxins accumulate in fats and break down slowly. This leads to contamination of the food supply, and human exposure through the consumption of meat, dairy, fish and shellfish.13 Even in the far north, animals have been found to contain dioxins.14 The EPA estimates that the cancer risk from dioxins already present in the general public is 1-per-1,000.15 In most cases the emissions pose minimal risk to human health. However, chemicals, and chemical combinations which remain unstudied should be properly assessed.16
Advancements in medical science and the use of pharmaceuticals, diagnostic equipment and other medical treatments have prolonged life expectancy. However, these interventions can also contribute to environmental contamination. In 2008, the Associated Press reported pharmaceuticals in the water of 24 major metropolitan areas in the United States, serving 41 million people.17 There is a concern that these pharmaceuticals could negatively impact male fertility, lead to birth defects, cause breast and testicular cancer in humans, and lead to antibiotic resistance.18 For many pharmaceuticals found in water sources, no concerted environmental impact surveys have been carried out.19
Mercury is used in fever thermometers, sphygmomanometers, gastrointestinal tubes, and oesophageal dilators20. Reports indicate that medical waste incinerators are among the largest sources of anthropogenic mercury emissions in both the United States and Canada.21 Medical waste, while not the principle source of mercury poisoning, contributes to the mercury levels present in the environment. In fetuses, infants and children, low-dose exposure to mercury can cause severe and lifelong behavioural and cognitive problems.22 At higher exposure levels, mercury may adversely affect the kidneys, the immune, neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and haematological systems of adults.23 It has also been linked to cancer.24
These examples highlight the major categories of human exposure to chemicals. As the review suggests, some of these chemicals have been linked to harmful human health impacts. What is important to keep in mind, however, is that the harm is conditional on the level and lengths of exposure. For most people, these chemicals pose no harm because the exposure is so low. In some cases, such as BPA, it has been determined that the potential harm is not worth the risk: the Canadian government has decided to declare BPA toxic and regulate it accordingly. In other cases, such as pharmaceuticals, the evidence simply warrants further study and surveillance. Given the potential harm to human health, surveillance and research are vitally important in all categories. The more information that is available to policy makers and health care professionals, the better the chance of limiting human health impacts.
What has been done?
Concerns regarding chemical contamination and human health have led to numerous interventions from the international community. These include the International Programme on Chemical Safety (1980), the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (1995), the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling (2002), and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, which was adopted by governments and stakeholders at the first International Conference on Chemicals held in Dubai in 2006. 25
Various conventions have also been passed, including the Stockholm Convention (2004) on persistent organic pollutants such as DDT, and the Rotterdam Convention (2004) which applies to pesticides and industrial chemicals.26 There is some concern about the continued effectiveness of the Rotterdam convention. In 2006, the Canadian government was instrumental in preventing the listing of asbestos as a toxic chemical. Given the persuasive evidence of the harm caused by asbestos, this action undermines the legitimacy of voluntary international conventions.27
In addition to being a signatory to all international agreements listed above, the Canadian government has programs for chemical management domestically. The main tool is the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) 1999. Jointly administered by Environment Canada and Health Canada, it is intended to prevent pollution and address the potentially dangerous chemical substances to which Canadians are exposed.28 The plan calls for increased surveillance of certain chemicals to monitor exposure and health effects, and will increase focus on the management of the health and environmental risks of pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and chemical contamination in food.29
There were 23,000 chemical substances on the Domestic Substances List (DSL) in Canada in 1999. To date, only about 1,000 of these chemicals have been fully assessed. Of the remaining 22,000, 85% have been categorized as not requiring any additional action.30The most recent Canadian Chemicals Management Plan states that full assessments will be done on 550 substances identified as potentially harmful. Even with these additional assessments, more than 3,000 chemicals will not have been assessed.
Canadian Medical Association
In 2009, the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nurses Association released a joint position statement on environmentally responsible activity for the health-care sector. Recommendations included the proper handling and disposal of toxic chemicals and the reduction of products using these substances. An adapted version of this position statement was then endorsed by a coalition of 12 national healthcare organizations and the David Suzuki Foundation.
In October 2010, the World Medical Association, of which CMA is a member, adopted a policy statement on environmental degradation and the management of chemicals. The statement calls for mercury-free health care, support for international efforts to restrict chemical pollution and to monitor harmful chemicals in humans and the environment, and mitigation of the health effects of toxic exposure to chemicals.
What needs to be done?
Research and Surveillance
Research on chemicals produced through man-made activities remains insufficient. While some of the more toxic chemicals have been reviewed and are now more closely regulated, thousands remain that have had neither health nor environmental assessments. The Domestic Substances List in Canada has 3,300 chemicals of concern that have not been assessed. There is limited research on the effect of these chemicals in combination or in different mediums. Finally, work must be done to ensure environmental and human surveillance of potential chemical exposure threats.
1. Urges the government to complete the health and environmental assessment of the chemicals on the Domestic Substances List.
2. Encourages research on the health impacts of chemical substances, as well as the combinations of these substances in different products (e.g. pesticides), and in different mediums (e.g. pharmaceuticals in drinking water). Long-term research programs are required to determine health impacts from prolonged low-dose exposures.
3. Encourages ongoing surveillance of chemicals in the environment.
4. Encourages ongoing research on the impact of regulations and monitoring of chemicals on human health and the environment.
Regulations have been developed both internationally and domestically to undertake chemical management. However, gaps remain, largely due to the voluntary nature of the frameworks. Canada can play a lead role by respecting its commitments, seeking continued adherence to these agreements and providing leadership in developing effective domestic programs and legislation.
5. Urges the government to continue to support international efforts to manage chemical pollution. In particular CMA urges the government to fully support the principles of the Rotterdam Convention and support the listing of Asbestos as an Annex III toxic chemical.
6. Supports government legislation and regulation which reduces dangerous chemical pollution, detects and monitors harmful chemicals in both humans and the environment, mitigates the health effects of toxic exposures, and requires an environmental and health impact assessment prior to the introduction of a new chemical. Regulatory frameworks should be favoured over voluntary frameworks in order to ensure a level playing field for all manufacturers and to secure rapid and equitable health protection for all Canadians. CMA encourages the government to advocate for similar legislation internationally.
Physicians can participate in the monitoring of patients for potential health effects from chemical exposure. Additionally, physicians can be leaders in encouraging greener health care practices. Finally, physicians can support national medical organizations in developing clinical tools to assess patient risk to chemical exposure.
7. Supports the phase out of mercury and other persistent, bio-accumulating and toxic chemicals in health care devices and products.
8. Supports the development of effective and safe systems to collect and dispose of pharmaceuticals that are not consumed.
9. Supports the development of clinical tools for physicians to help assess their patients' risk from chemical exposures.
Education and Professional Development
Physicians have a role to play in educating their patients, the public, and current and future colleagues about the potential human health consequences of chemical contamination. Medical education and continuing professional development in this area could have a significant impact on human health.
10. Should assist in building professional and public awareness of the impact of the environment and global chemical pollutants on personal health.
11. Supports the development of locally appropriate continuing medical education on the clinical signs, diagnosis and treatment of diseases that are introduced into communities as a result of chemical pollution.
12. Encourages physicians to inform patients about the importance of safe disposal of pharmaceuticals that are not consumed.
National and International initiatives have substantially reduced the incidence of harmful chemical contamination, but more work is needed. Evidence of health effects (or lack thereof) may be strong for certain chemicals, but for others it remains incomplete. Given the dangers of chemicals such as dioxin, which can cause severe effects with small doses, more comprehensive research is warranted. To ensure human health consequences are identified and risks are minimized, improved surveillance is essential.
Further policies and regulations are needed to ensure that chemicals utilized are as safe as possible. The Canadian BPA ban demonstrates the use of the precautionary principle in the presence of convincing if not complete evidence. While there are clear benefits associated with the use of chemicals, it is necessary to ensure that potential harmful effects are considered.'
Finally, public and health care provider information is sorely lacking. Physicians can play a role in correcting some of these deficiencies through their actions to support research and surveillance, advocacy, leadership, education, and professional development.
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