Health Canada has found heavy metals in children's face paints exceeding the government's own proposed impurity limits, but can't take action because the standards aren't in place yet, internal documents show.
The levels of lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium or antimony found in products during routine testing of children's face paints are considered unacceptable in other jurisdictions, according to the department. The Health Canada survey is still ongoing, and so far three products have been flagged for exceeding the proposed limits.
In addition to updating Canada's cosmetics policy to be more "in line" with other jurisdictions, Health Canada reviewed established tolerable levels to set proposed impurity limits.
The department settled on the levels to provide a "high level of protection" to susceptible segments of consumers like children, states Health Canada's draft policy.
These heavy metals, which the department identifies as "known significant toxicological properties," are prohibited as ingredients in cosmetic products sold in Canada, but they find their way in some makeup and face paints through trace amounts in raw materials.
The metals can be highly toxic to the brain, kidney or the nervous, reproductive or immune systems. Cadmium is also classified as a human carcinogen.
In the case of arsenic, mercury and cadmium, Health Canada is proposing an impurity limit of three parts per million (ppm). The threshold for cadmium will be five ppm and 10 ppm for lead.
In a statement, the department said there is no health risk to children or others because the limits are for "quality purposes and are well below levels that may present a health concern, according to current international standards."
Aaron Freeman, policy director at Environmental Defence, said the government cannot provide such a blanket reassurance in all cases.
"They certainly can't (in the absence of) biomonitoring data for children, which they do not have. What they're doing is they're making an assessment based on a one-off product. They're not sufficiently taking into account the fact that we get these pollutants from multiple sources. They accumulate in our bodies as do the health effects," Freeman said.
In cases where the face paints contained impurity limits in excess of the proposed level, the department sent letters to the manufacturers to inform them of its forthcoming policy on impurity limits, a spokesman said.
Freeman said the fact that some companies are producing children's cosmetics without detectable levels of highly toxic heavy metals shows some manufacturers have to clean up their act.
"If an ingredient in a face paint contains a significant level of lead such that the final product ends up containing 10 parts per million, we need to find an alternative to that ingredient, and the fact there are other paints on the market that don't have detectable levels of lead suggest that those alternatives exists."
The government, meanwhile, "should be identifying the priority pollutants and priority products, and get those chemicals out of the products. Even before we get into levels and safe alternatives, just right off the bat, if you've got a cosmetic product that's got a toxic chemical in it, there's something wrong. There's no reason we should be exposing ourselves to pollutants for what are essentially luxury items," said Freeman.
Health Canada is accepting comments on its proposed impurity limits for another month. Once the regulations are in place, the draft paper says the department "will take action as deemed appropriate" for products that contain levels above the proposed limits.
"Manufacturers must ensure that their products and the ingredients used in the manufacturer of their products are of high quality," the paper adds.
Health Canada also found the heavy metal barium in a face paint at a level that would warrant an immediate recall if the same amount were detected in the surface paint of a toy, according to product safety inspection reports released under Access to Information.
Under the Hazardous Products Act and corresponding regulations, children's toys are prohibited for sale in Canada if the surface paint contains any type of barium at a level exceeding one ppm. Last year, seven toys were recalled for exceeding this level on their surface paints.
But in the case of cosmetics, different rules apply because they fall under different legislation.
Soluble forms of barium are banned outright in cosmetics such as face paints. However, insoluble forms, namely barium sulphate and sulphide, are permitted at any level as an acceptable colourant in cosmetics because health risks associated with the heavy metal are considered significantly lower.
Health Canada conducted the tests last July, but has yet to confirm in all cases whether the barium detected is one of the allowable forms.
The department "is in the process of verifying ingredients lists with the manufacturers to ensure that the barium found in the tested products are from an acceptable colourant in cosmetics," the spokesman said in a statement.
Over this six-month period, one manufacturer has provided Health Canada with such an assurance.
In addition to a colourant in cosmetics, insoluble forms of barium are routinely used in medical treatment and commercial applications.
Freeman said this inconsistency is more an issue of bureaucratic bungling rather than a health concern.
"It is a function to some degree of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing in government," said Freeman.
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