TORONTO - A coalition of health groups challenged the Ontario government Monday to become the first jurisdiction in Canada to aggressively target environmental carcinogens that they say will continue to kill tens of thousands if politicians fail to act.

Pesticides, cosmetics, industrial cleaners and other products containing potentially toxic chemicals should face tougher scrutiny and regulation, said a coalition consisting of Cancer Care Ontario, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Ontario Medical Association and others.

The group's report also said manufacturers should be encouraged to switch to alternatives that are less or not-at-all toxic.

Ontario lacks a strategy to reduce the poisons in our air and food and revamping the system to be more progressive could cause a ripple effect in other provinces, said Sarah Miller of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, one of the groups involved.

"I think public opinion surveys demonstrate again and again that people are very concerned about the environment,'' said Miller. "They want more choices, and the right to know about what they're being exposed to.''

Toxins listed by the coalition include tobacco smoke, pesticides, industrial soot and tar, asbestos, and exhaust. Even products found in barbershops and hair salons are included.

The coalition wants to see labels on all products outlining which carcinogens are present and a campaign to educate the people on the risks of being around hazardous substances.

Health Canada has already put a related program in place -- as of November, cosmetics will have to show a list of ingredients.

While a list of ingredients is a great first step, it still puts the onus on the consumer to research whether the chemicals listed are potentially toxic, said Jordan Beischlag of the Canadian Cancer Society's Ontario division.

Given that the average person can't pronounce many of the chemicals being cited, let alone identify them, the society is also calling for a visual symbol that immediately identifies a potential toxin -- much like "recyclable'' or "flammable'' symbols.

"By having this user-friendly, well-known visual symbol that's consistent across the province, it would be an easy way for a consumer to make a healthy decision in what products they're buying,'' Beischlag said.

The groups are working on the so-called "precautionary principle,'' which says that if a substance presents a potential threat to human health, it's not worth taking a chance on.

An estimated 159,900 new cancer cases will be diagnosed in Canada this year, of which 59,500 will be in Ontario, the report says.

If the toxins are unchecked, the study says, they will contribute to tens of thousands of new cancer diagnoses each year. The most vulnerable are pregnant women, fetuses, children, seniors and aboriginals.

The report also calls for a surveillance system to estimate and monitor people's levels of exposure to specific substances, and a need to identify substances for action.

The findings have been presented to the three major political parties in Ontario, just weeks before the Oct. 10 election, and each has said a program to reduce the use of dangerous toxins will be central to their platforms, Miller said.

The group also calls for the creation of a government-funded body that would be dedicated to researching substitutes for toxic chemicals and assisting industry in making the switch.