Potentially harmful substances can slip into the Canadian marketplace because the federal agency that acts as a gatekeeper is unable to assess their safety in a timely fashion and does not count those that elude its grasp.
A recent internal government audit of the New Substances Assessment and Control Bureau, states the failure of the bureau to meet its deadlines "constitutes a risk that is not currently being tracked."
The bureau, a section of Health Canada, was established to determine the safety of new chemicals and organisms being made available to Canadians, including those in drugs, cosmetics and genetically modified foods.
It can ban hazardous substances and set rules to govern those that need special handling.
When companies want to make or use new substances or import them into Canada, they must ask the bureau for an assessment. The bureau must then respond within specified timelines - 75 days for chemicals and 120 days for organisms.
If the time limits are not met, substances can be used without an assessment.
And, at some point, they will be placed on the Domestic Substances List - the list of about 23,000 chemicals that can be legally used in Canada - even though they have not been rigorously scrutinized.
Once a substance is on the list, the bureau cannot subject it to additional controls.
"Historically, the bureau has had problems meeting its legislated deadlines," states the audit that was completed last September.
That means "a substance could enter into common use in Canada without ever having been assessed," the audit states.
"The bureau was unable to identify the extent to which this has occurred."
Health Canada said in an e-mail Friday that some of the recommendations contained in the audit have already been acted upon. For instance, applications are now put in priority order and there are standards that must be followed when the bureau receives notifications for assessment.
But the situation is a source of concern for groups that monitor how potentially harmful chemicals are handled.
"It's very alarming," said Rick Smith, the executive director of Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based environmental advocacy group.
"What's supposed to be happening with new substances is that they are subjected to a brand-spanking new process that protects the health of Canadians and the Canadian environment," he said.
If "we are still in this crazy, backward situation where, in the absence of safety testing, substances get onto the market as opposed to being held back until such times as they are demonstrated to be safe, that is contrary to what we thought was going on."
The New Substances Assessment and Control Bureau tried to stop-gap the problem in 2007 by instituting a "triage" system such that it would direct its resources to substances that posed the highest potential risk to human health and the environment.
But, the audit said, "the process is informal, varies from unit to unit, and has not been documented."
Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal health critic, said the timelines seem unrealistic. "Health Canada doesn't know what it doesn't know," she said, "and it's almost as if everything goes into the dustbin if they don't get their timeline right."
Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the NDP health critic, said the results of the audit are disturbing.
"It means products get a free pass onto shelves. And that means consumers are buying and using and being exposed to potentially harmful products."