Provincial chemical associations across Canada are working very hard right now to get their respective governments to enact legislation formalizing the practice of chemistry. Quebec has already been successful; most of the other provinces are in the process. Some provinces have too few chemists to organize an effective approach to their governments. In Ontario, anyone can work as a chemist so long as they don’t call themselves “chartered,” so is formal recognition really that important?

Chemistry as a subject for study has been around for at least 500 years; chemistry as a profession goes back only to the 19th century. Its recognition as an essential public service in Canada has been long neglected and, by some accounts, ignored. But again, does that mean that chemists need formal, legal status just like the other professions? Considering today’s burgeoning legislation with its accompanying liability, the answer is ‘yes’ and it’s a pressing issue demanding a response from governments at both levels.

Chemistry enjoyed popularity with the public from the 1950s to 1970s due in part to its cutting-edge innovations. Today, the public perception of what chemistry is and what it has done for society has waned and, among the public at large, it is now blamed for most of today’s environmental problems — real or perceived. Chemistry and pollution have become almost synonymous — but there are encouraging signs that things are changing.

As an analytical chemist of some 40-odd year’s experience, working first as a professor then in laboratory consulting and now in environmental consulting, I can point to case after case where the failure to legislate the chemistry profession has had disastrous consequences for the public good and the public purse. Examples include Hamilton, Ont.-based Fine Analysis Laboratories, which was convicted in 2004 for fraudulent environmental lab results. The 2000s saw a global scandal after it was discovered that staff from Calgary-based BRE-X Gold Minerals fraudulently salted ore samples from an Indonesian mine with gold from elsewhere. That fiasco led to the licensing of geoscientists in Ontario. A situation much closer to home for me was the Ontario government’s decision in 2008 to remove the designation ‘Chartered Chemist’ from the list of ‘Qualified Persons’ for performing environmental site assessments. The stated reason was that “chemistry is not a licensed profession in the Province of Ontario.” So, after five years as a Qualified Person and 20 years experience, I was disqualified. Fortunately, The Association of Professional Geoscientists of Ontario took pity on environmental chemists and offered a limited license allowing us to continue in gainful employment. But there are not many chemists in the decision-making echelons of environmental site assessment, a staggering situation given that chemistry is the central science in understanding chemical contamination of air, soil and water. Only engineers and geoscientists can sign off on the reports, not chemists.

Licensure of chemists in Canada will not stop the unscrupulous from their nefarious practices but it will go a long way to reassuring the public that there is a professional body overseeing its members with enough clout to discipline them should they fail to maintain acceptable standards of work. It will also allow chemists to take their rightful place in the decision-making process where, in my field, their absence has led to severely flawed legislation governing site assessments. Lastly, it will give every chemist the legal backing for the decisions they make. I’ve occasionally had to say to a client, “I could lose my (geoscience) license if I do what you are asking me to do.” That’s a lot easier than simply saying, “get lost” or “no” to a shady employer or supervisor. I’m sure many chemists working in industry and government wish they could do likewise­.

Dr. George Duncan, MCIC, C.Chem, P.Geo. QP is founder and president of A & A Environmental Consultants Inc., Woodstock, Ont. and founder/environmental manager of Accurassay Laboratories in Thunder Bay, Ont.