We need a rights-based approach to reducing environmental contamination, one that privileges the most at-risk groups.
Our key takeaway: Pollution and waste are harming a growing number of people. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment highlights a striking statistic: one in six deaths in the world involves diseases caused by pollution, three times more than deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined and 15 times more than from all wars, murders and other forms of violence. Some people in particular are bearing the brunt of pollution-related illnesses: people living in low- and middle-income countries; workers in high-risk (and often low-paying) jobs; and vulnerable and marginalized groups. A human rights-based approach should be a driving factor in addressing the toxification of the planet, with a focus on the most at-risk communities who bear a disproportionate burden of harm. For businesses, this entails such actions as not lobbying against stronger environmental laws and policies; refraining from publishing or supporting inaccurate, false or misleading information about the risks posed by toxic substances; accepting a heightened responsibility in extremely contaminated areas; and cleaning up and rehabilitating following pollution or contamination.
The Special Rapporteur on the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment released its UN Human Rights Council report, focusing on non-toxic environments:
- “Sacrifice zones” are proliferating: The Special Rapporteur on the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (in collaboration with the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes) “identifies a non-toxic environment as one of the substantive elements of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” Rising levels of pollution, waste and other contaminants in our ecosystem are “causing environmental injustices and creating ‘sacrifice zones’, extremely contaminated areas where vulnerable and marginalized groups bear a disproportionate burden of the health, human rights and environmental consequences of exposure to pollution and hazardous substances.” The report includes a telling quote from one resident of a sacrifice zone in Chile: “They are giving us a bad life, every day they are sacrificing us, killing us slowly with cancer, with illness, and so on.”
- The social injustice of pollution: According to the report, “[o]ne in six deaths in the world involves diseases caused by pollution, three times more than deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined and 15 times more than from all wars, murders and other forms of violence.” Among types of pollution, air pollution is the largest contributor, causing an estimated 7 million premature deaths annually around the globe. Yet, not all communities suffer the same burden: “Low- and middle-income countries bear the brunt of pollution-related illnesses, with nearly 92 per cent of pollution-related deaths.” What’s more, workers in high-risk (and often low-paying) jobs face disproportionate impacts: “Over 750,000 workers die annually because of exposure to toxic substances on the job, including particulate matter, asbestos, arsenic and diesel exhaust.” As toxification of the planet has increased, so have various agreements and conventions designed to reduce contaminants, such as the Minamata Convention on Mercury, ILO Chemicals Convention of 1990, the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution, and others. Yet, the Special Rapporteur finds that “effectiveness of these instruments is undermined by many major gaps and weaknesses, including the fact that none of them mention human rights, the vast majority of toxic substances are not controlled and few nations are fulfilling all of their obligations. For example, OECD estimates that between 20,000 and 100,000 existing chemicals have not been adequately assessed to determine their risks because of information gaps.”
- Taking a rights-based approach: The report emphasises the crucial role of a rights-based approach to reducing environmental contamination, one that privileges the most at-risk groups. Companies should conduct due diligence that links human rights and environmental risks and adhere to international standards that seek to prevent or reduce pollution. In light of the private sector’s history of fighting environmental regulations, the report states that “[b]usinesses should not lobby against stronger environmental laws and policies and must refrain from publishing or supporting inaccurate, false or misleading information about the risks posed by toxic substances.” For businesses operating in so-called “sacrifice zones,” responsibilities are heightened: these companies “should install pollution-abatement equipment, switch to clean fuels, change processes, reduce production and, if necessary, relocate. Businesses are also responsible for cleaning up and rehabilitating communities, lands, waters and ecosystems polluted or contaminated by their operations.”