WHMIS Control – Does it Protect Children?

Government protection regulations require that Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) be on location for all WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) controlled products used in workplaces. This includes the cleaning and maintenance products used in schools. These sheets provide important information to protect everyone who may come in contact with the products. You can get details on the listed ingredients from Hazardous Materials Lists available through Labour or Health departments, or through the internet. The MSDS themselves, however, may give us a false sense of security. What you need to know may not be found on the MSDS for several reasons. They are prepared by the manufacturer according to government specifications, but there is little or no monitoring of either the products or the MSDS information. It is also possible for manufacturers to apply to have certain materials exempted – if the chemical is found to be a trade secret, for example, its name can legally be omitted from the MSDS.

When chemicals are tested, they are examined individually. There is usually no attempt to evaluate how they may change or what new compounds they may form when combined with the other ingredients in a product or in the air.

For these individual chemicals, standards for safety are set for healthy adult males in the workforce, not for women, children, the old, or the ill – and not to mention those who have developed hypersensitivity to chemicals.

The U.S. FDA, whose information is used by Health Canada, receives new chemicals every day to examine and determine if they are safe and suitable for use. Health Canada estimates that over 23,000 chemicals have not been assessed for health effects at all. It is impossible to adequately test even a fraction of these for carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic (a teratogen causes birth defects by damaging the fetus), or other hazard, and many of these chemicals are destined for the cleaning and construction business.

Because ingredients lists are protected information, only those ingredients that must by law be reported may be on the MSDS. Chemicals that are present in amounts less than 1% need not be listed, and carcinogens below 0.1% can be exempt. Inactive ingredients such as binders, fragrance, or pigments/dyes are not always reportable either. As an example, experts in the industry claim that many liquid handsoaps contain formaldehyde as the preservative – at less than 1% it need not be reported on MSDS. Environmental Health professionals and physicians assert there should be zero tolerance for formaldehyde exposure because of its sensitizing quality. That is, people sensitized to formaldehyde often develop broad sensitivity or intolerance to multitudes of chemicals and substances unrelated to formaldehyde. It is also a carcinogen (known to cause cancer). To further illustrate the limits of usefulness of MSDS, note the MSDS of a room deodorant that was in use in one school system: Although this room deodorant emits a strong chemical odour, its MSDS states: “Ingredients: NONE”.

WHMIS has good value. However, it is not wise to rely entirely on WHMIS for ingredient specifics. Professional help may be required to identify good quality low-pollutant products.

– K. Robinson, Healthy Schools Editor, The National UPdate (1999)