Toxic pollution: Another extinction crisis looms, warns UN expert

NEW YORK October 24, 2019 – Under the shadow of the existential threats of climate change and biodiversity collapse lies another, insidious extinction crisis: the toxification of our planet and our bodies, a UN human rights expert told the General Assembly today.

“Our incessant exposure to pollution and other sources of toxic substances poses a global threat to human rights, including to our right to reproductive health,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, as he called on States to recognise and uphold their duty to prevent exposure to hazardous substances.

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He said that when viewed through the lens of children’s and reproductive health, the importance and gravity of preventing exposure to toxic substances at the outset sharpens further into focus. Declining fertility, including declining sperm quality and quantity, is only one of many worrying health trends linked to toxic exposure that persist because States have not truly prioritised exposure prevention.

“Every State has binding human rights obligations that create a duty to take active measures to prevent the exposure of individuals and communities to toxic substances. Nonetheless, people and peoples are knowingly exposed to a multitude of hazardous substances that could be prevented. Relief and remedy, to the limited extent it materialises, is often insufficient and too late for those who are exposed.”

Tuncak’s report reminds States of their duty to prevent exposure to toxics in the context of the rights to life, health, dignity and bodily integrity. It is increasingly demonstrated that “safe” levels of exposure for many toxic substances are presumed, and for many there is no safe level of exposure.

“There is a danger that the human rights to safe water, adequate food and housing, clean air, a healthy environment and safe and healthy work, among others, will be a false promise and never truly realised without concerted efforts to make exposure prevention an urgent priority,” said Tuncak.

Tuncak stressed that this “toxic cocktail” of pollution is conservatively calculated as the single largest source of premature death in the world, and it causes and contributes to a “silent pandemic” of diseases and disabilities. “We can no longer see the problem substance-by-substance – but rather must address the combined effect of a multitude of chronic exposures, particularly on those that are most vulnerable, such as children, workers, different genders and people living in poverty,” he said.

The report notes grave examples of inaction in the face of pressing global challenges such as the lifecycle of plastic pollution, hazardous pesticides, toxic air pollution, untested chemicals in consumer products, and heavy metal contamination of food and water, among other current concerns linked to a multitude of adverse health impacts.

“While toxic exposures silently and invisibly erode, abuse, and violate the rights to air, water, food and safe workplaces of billions, particularly of children and other susceptible groups, States are locked in years- or decades-long debates over what should be considered clean, healthy or adequate,” Tuncak said.

“States must uphold their duty to protect human rights from pollution and other hazardous substances. And, the only way to protect these human rights for all and provide a truly effective remedy is to prevent exposure.”