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On November 5, 2016, the federal government published a proposed regulation in the Canada Gazette, entitled Microbeads in Toiletries Regulations, to ban the manufacture or import of most toiletries that contain microbeads on or after January 1, 2018. The prohibition applies to products that are natural health products or non-prescription drugs on or after July 1, 2018.

This past summer, microbeads less than 5mm in size were added to Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), paving the way for regulatory controls. As we previously reported, listing of microbeads under CEPA was unexpected. A listing on Schedule 1 means that a substance is determined to be toxic, by one more of the following definitions, under section 64 of CEPA:

… [A] substance is toxic if it is entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that

(a) have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity;

(b) constitute or may constitute a danger to the environment on which life depends; or

(c) constitute or may constitute a danger in Canada to human life or health.

In its review of existing science, the Department of Environment concluded that plastic microbeads met the definition in category (a). Effects include both short and long-term effects in aquatic organisms. Microbeads are readily taken up by fish, mussels and several types of zooplankton. This has implications for feeding behaviour, leading to reduced body growth and reproduction. They also absorb persistent organic pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), from the marine environment, making them harmful to organisms that eat them.

Regulation of microbeads is now a global affair. The United States, Europe, and Australia have all taken regulatory actions to eliminate the use of microbeads. In the states, nine U.S. states have passed laws prohibiting the selling and manufacturing of microbeads in personal care products. On December 28, 2015, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was signed into federal law, placing restrictions on the manufacture or introduction, or delivery for introduction, into interstate commerce, of rinse-off cosmetic products containing microbeads. Unusually, Canada was ahead of the United States in regulatory actions.

According to news reports, industries using microbeads had in many cases already voluntarily phased out microbeads by the time Canada had officially listed them as toxic. Five of fourteen of the heaviest users in Canada had already stopped using their products, with nine more expected to follow suit by 2018 or 2019.

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