Risk management of chemical substances

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Overview of risk management

The Government of Canada is committed to protecting Canadians and the environment from chemical substances that could be harmful. The Chemicals Management Plan (CMP) is a Government of Canada initiative aimed at reducing the risks posed by chemical substances to Canadians and the environment.

With proper use, storage and disposal, most chemical substances pose minimal risk. However, some chemical substances manufactured or used under certain conditions can lead to exposure that has harmful short- and/or long-term effects. Risk management of chemical substances involves preventing or controlling the conditions that may cause harm, such as the use of a chemical substance, the way it is made, how it is disposed of, and/or the amount or concentration that is released to the environment.

Risks to the environment and/or human health are determined through the risk assessment process. Once it has been determined that a chemical substance poses a risk, risk managers identify how best to manage the risk to help protect Canadians and the environment. To do this, risk managers must understand how the chemical substance is created, used, who uses it and how it reaches the environment or people. Risk management instruments are then identified, developed and put into action to help prevent, reduce or eliminate that risk.

The performance measurement evaluation process helps to evaluate the effectiveness of risk management. If a risk management instrument has been in place for some time and the government is not satisfied that the risk has been sufficiently prevented or reduced, it can take further action.

The government is committed to implementing pollution prevention as a national goal and as the priority approach to environmental protection. Pollution prevention is about preventing the creation of waste at the source rather than cleaning it up after it has been produced. Minimizing or avoiding the creation of pollutants and wastes can be more effective in protecting the environment and less costly than treating them or cleaning them up after they have been created.

Managing the risks of chemical substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999) defines "toxic" substances in section 64 as those that enter or may enter the environment at levels or conditions that:

  • have or may have a harmful effect on the environment
  • are or could be dangerous to the environment that life depends on; or
  • are or could be dangerous to human life or health
Figure 1 - Canada's chemicals management cycle

Figure 1. Text version below.

Figure 1 - Text description

The figure depicts Canada's chemicals management cycle, as it is known, made up of several-integrated components: a hub of information exchange through consultation, communication and cooperation in the middle that relates to the other 6 components.

These 6 interconnected components link in a circle:

  • information gathering, including research and monitoring
  • risk assessment
  • risk management (instrument development)
  • compliance promotion
  • enforcement
  • performance measurement, evaluation and reporting 

These chemical substances are referred to as "CEPA-toxic". These are the chemical substances for which risk management actions generally are implemented, in order to help prevent and control risks and protect human health and the environment. Before the government can take action on these chemical substances under CEPA 1999, they have to be added to the List of Toxic Substances. In special cases, some chemical substances, which have been assessed and concluded to meet one or more of the criteria under section 64, have not been added to the List of Toxic Substances. These chemical substances are included on the Non-Statutory List.

Risk management instruments

Preventing or controlling risks is done by selecting and applying instruments that are most likely to achieve environmental and/or human health objectives. A variety of voluntary and mandatory instruments are used to manage risks posed by chemical substances. This range of options allows risk managers to use flexible, adaptable and phased approaches when dealing with harmful chemical substances in an integrated global market.

View more information on the Risk Management Actions to address Risks from Substances concluded to be Harmful to the Environment and/or Human Health as per Section 64 of CEPA 1999.

Under CEPA 1999, instruments are chosen based on a number of environmental, health, economic and social considerations, while risk managers also consider existing federal laws and programs, laws in provinces and territories, and sometimes those made in other countries.

Some examples of risk management instruments are:

  • Regulationsthese are enforceable laws that can restrict the use or release of a chemical substance, set limits on the concentrations allowed under various conditions, or prevent the use of chemical substances in certain products.
  • Pollution prevention planning noticesthese require companies to prepare and implement a pollution prevention plan in order to minimize or avoid the creation of pollution or waste.
  • Release guidelines or codes of practice: these recommend limits and best practices to manage the use, release or disposal of a chemical substance.
  • Significant New Activity provisions: these require any major changes in the way a chemical substance it is used be reported so that the government can decide whether to control the new use
  • Ministerial conditions for new substances: these restrict the manner in which a new substance may be imported or manufactured

These risk management tools may be used to control various aspects of the life cycle of a CEPA-toxic substance from the design and development stage to its manufacture, use, handling, storage, import, export, transport and ultimate disposal. For many chemical substances, CEPA 1999 also requires that risk management tools be developed and applied within strict timelines.

The Government of Canada also has access to risk management tools outside of CEPA 1999 that can address CEPA-toxic or other chemical substances. Actions can be taken to develop instruments under other Acts, such as the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act (CCPSA), the Pest Control Products Act (PCPA) and the Food and Drugs Act (FDA). When making risk management decisions, consideration is given to which Act is best placed to manage the identified risks. Some examples of non-CEPA tools are to commit participating sectors or companies to specific challenges or performance levels:

  • Additions to the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist: an administrative tool that sets out a list of substances that Health Canada describes as restricted or prohibited in cosmetics
  • Various actions under the FDA: to address food, drug and health products
  • Environmental performance agreements: these occur between one or more levels of government and a company or an industry sector
  • Recall notices, regulations, packaging and labelling requirements under the CCPSA


Before making decisions on which risk management instruments are the most appropriate to manage the risks, the objectives that should be achieved in order to protect Canadians and the environment are established.

Environmental and human health objectives are statements that describe what should be done to address environmental and human health concerns related to a chemical substance or group of chemical substances. These can be qualitative (for example, reduce exposures to the general population) or quantitative (for example, achieve a level of 5 micrograms/L in surface water). Once human health or environmental objectives are decided upon, risk management objectives are established.

Risk management objectives are goals or targets that describe the expected results. These results would be achieved through the implementation of risk management instruments. Risk management objectives may be described in quantitative terms such as a performance standard, release limit, product content limit, percent reduction or more qualitative terms such as "lowest achievable levels". Risk management objectives are developed to contribute to the achievement of, or progress towards, an environmental or human health objective.

Risk management decision making - how to choose the best instrument(s) to control the risk

To identify the best-suited risk management instruments (mandatory or voluntary), risk managers follow a consistent and systematic approach. Through the instrument choice process, risk managers identify which instrument or mix of instruments are best suited to help achieve the risk management objectives on a sustained basis. The process takes into consideration the effectiveness and efficiency of the different risk management instruments, available information on the chemical substance and its sources of risk, and process guidance such as the Government of Canada's Cabinet Directive on Regulation.

Engaging in risk management

Consulting with interested and implicated stakeholders is an important element for the development and design of risk management instruments. The public and stakeholders are first engaged when a chemical substance is assessed and proposed to be concluded as harmful to human health or the environment (that is, CEPA-toxic). When a toxic conclusion is proposed, a risk management scope is published at the same time as the draft screening assessment. The risk management scope outlines the Government of Canada's early thinking on risk management. If the final screening assessment maintains the toxic conclusion, the risk management approach is published and outlines in more detail the Government of Canada's plan for risk management. Both the draft screening assessment, the risk management scope, and the risk management approach provide an opportunity for stakeholders to provide feedback and information to inform the path forward. Consultations continue throughout risk management tool development, implementation, and publication. Stakeholder input on information gaps, technical considerations and socio-economic impacts can help inform the decisions made to manage risks for a CEPA-toxic substance. Information on consultation opportunities is available on the CEPA Registry.

Managing risks in a global context

Sometimes taking action in Canada isn't enough to manage risks that originate outside our borders. Some chemical substances used in other countries can travel long distances through the air or water, and end up in the Canadian environment, such as mercury and persistent organic pollutants. Canada is an active participant in international efforts toward the sound management of substances and waste. Canada's participation in global agreements on substances and waste aims to protect the health of Canadians and the environment, influence global priorities, and provide Canadian expertise based on our own domestic substances management experience.
View more information on the Compendium of Canada's Engagement in International Environmental Agreements.

Compliance with risk management instruments

Compliance means meeting specific requirements set in a risk management instrument and is secured through 2 types of activity: promotion and enforcement.

Promoting compliance contributes to the awareness and understanding of regulated communities of their obligations to comply with risk management instruments. Promotion includes products (factsheets, brochures, posters, guides, videos, social media messages, etc.) and activities (presentations at information sessions, tradeshows, workshops, meetings, responses to inquiries, etc.). Increasing the voluntary compliance of regulatees reduces the number of enforcement actions needed.

Environment and Climate Change Canada's compliance and enforcement policy for CEPA 1999 will be applied when enforcement staff suspects non-compliance with a risk management instrument. This policy sets out the range of possible responses to alleged violations, including warnings, directions in case of release, environmental protection compliance orders, ticketing, ministerial orders, injunctions, prosecution and environmental protection alternative measures (which are an alternative to a court prosecution after the laying of charges for a CEPA 1999 violation). In addition, the policy explains when the Department of Environment and Climate Change will resort to civil suits by the Crown for cost recovery.

Measuring our risk management performance

Performance measurement evaluates the ongoing relevance, success and effectiveness of the actions taken to manage risks from CEPA-toxic substances (that is, have human health and environmental objectives been met?).

Substance-based performance measurement and evaluation considers the overall performance of final risk management instruments applied to a chemical substance and relevant data or indicators of exposure to the environment or human health.

Instrument-based performance measurement evaluates the effectiveness of an individual instrument in meeting the specific risk management objectives that were set out when the risk management tool was designed. The results of performance measurement will help determine if additional risk management or assessment is needed.

View more information on the performance measurement for toxic substances.

Making information available

The Government of Canada works with stakeholders, such as the general public and industry, in addition to health and environmental organizations and Indigenous partners to help make sure decisions made on risk management are understood, and that the process used is transparent.

Information on actions the Government of Canada takes to manage risks is made available through the Canada Gazette and other government websites, such as the CEPA Registry. Information on the Chemicals Management Plan is also available.

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