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05/16/2018 11:32 EDT | Updated 05/16/2018 11:38 EDT

Baby Bibs And Blankets In Canada Contain Toxic Chemicals: Report

37 out of 43 products tested in Canada contained toxins.

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OTTAWA — Baby bibs, mats and blankets tested by scientists with NAFTA's environmental arm contain toxic chemicals linked to higher rates of cancer, infertility and suppressed immune systems — substances already banned from most other products in Canada.

Muhannad Malas, the toxics program manager at Environmental Defence, says the Commission for Environmental Co-operation study shows it's time to do away with the federal exemptions that allow the use of such chemicals in clothes and other textiles.

And Environment Minister Catherine McKenna's ongoing review of Canada's law that governs toxic chemical use offers a perfect opportunity to address concerns raised by the study, Malas said in an interview.

Chemicals were banned ... but not in baby products

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The chemicals, known broadly as PFAS, are synthetic substances created mostly in the 1950s for a number of purposes in consumer and industrial products, such as non-stick surfaces and stain, water and fire resistance.

The chemicals can leach into waterways and drinking water sources when products that contain them are washed or get wet outdoors, said Malas. They can also be ingested through contaminated water or absorbed through the skin or the mouth, he added.

Canada banned the use, manufacture and import of the chemicals in 2016 after research began linking them to increased incidence of cancer, infertility and immune system suppression. However, a number of products were exempted, including infant bibs and blankets, outerwear and sportswear, like cycling jackets and weightlifting gloves.

Results were "alarming"

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Last summer, scientists with the Commission for Environmental Co-operation tested 137 different products in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico to determine the prevalence of the substances, which are not routinely tested for in clothing items.

"The results are quite alarming," said Malas.

Overall, the chemicals were found in 94 of the 137 products; of the 43 products that were purchased in Canada, 37 of them contained at least one PFAS.

All six Canadian baby bibs tested contained at least one form of the chemicals; one contained nine, which Malas said raises concerns that Canada's existing laws don't account for the potential cumulative impact of being exposed to multiple forms at the same time.

All four of the baby blankets and waterproof mats purchased in Canada contained at least one PFAS chemical, as did all 11 outdoor kids' jackets, all 20 outdoor adult jackets, 10 of the 11 snowsuits and winter gloves, and all three cycling and weightlifting gloves.

The government is open to "meaningful changes"

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Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change for Canada, speaks on a panel during the BNEF Future of Energy Summit in New York, U.S. on Monday, April 9, 2018.

Malas said he hopes the report will give McKenna ammunition to include the chemicals in next month's review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which governs Canada's laws for pollution and chemicals and comes up for review every five years.

Last June, the House of Commons environment committee made 87 recommendations to McKenna, some of which would address chemicals like PFAS by requiring better management and monitoring. The committee also recommended Environment Canada require an assessment of the cumulative impact of repeated, prolonged exposure.

A spokeswoman for McKenna said the government is "open to meaningful changes'' to the act and the minister is considering every one of the recommendations made by the committee. A report detailing McKenna's plans is due for release next month.

Products' labelling makes them seem safer than they are

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Most of the products were made in China, but several were made in Canada, the study found. "We're not just talking about imported products where people usually think it's harder to control toxic chemicals.''

Many of the products were labelled as being organic cotton, BPA-free or lead-free, making them seem safer to consumers than may actually be the case, Malas warned.

"This is the kind of information the public needs to know about,'' he said. "They have a right to know.''

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