Report on the duty to prevent exposure

A scavenger paddles his wooden boat to collect plastic waste for recycling on the Citarum river choked with garbage and industrial waste, in Bandung, West Java province on June 26, 2019. The river, one of the world's most polluted after decades of failed clean-up efforts, in 2018 was earmarked for revitalisation by Jakarta to make its water drinkable again by 2025.© AFP PHOTO/Timur MatahariNearly sixty years ago, Rachel Carson warned, "If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals—eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones—we had better know something about their nature and their power." While the dangers of exposure to toxic pollutants—whether synthetic chemicals used in workplaces or intentionally added to products, or wastes that contaminate food, air, soil and water—have been known for decades, the magnitude and impact of a rapidly toxifying world continues to grow faster than measures to prevent exposure.

In 2015, pollution killed an estimated 9 million people, accounting for approximately 16% of all deaths worldwide, likely to be an underestimate given known information gaps. This is three times more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined and 15 times more than from wars and other forms of violence. Pollution, more specifically human exposure to it, is estimated to be the single largest source of premature death in the world today.

In this 2019 report to the General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes (toxics) takes the opportunity to remind the international community of the State's duty to prevent exposure to toxics. The Special Rapporteur discusses the legal basis of this duty, and highlights how exposure prevention is the exception, leading to existential threats to life and health, including reproduction. In his analysis, he examines the rights to life, health, a life with dignity and bodily integrity, among others.  The Special Rapporteur explains the importance of this duty to the human rights to a healthy environment, safe and healthy work, among others impacted by pollution and other sources of toxic exposure. The report concludes with recommendations to States, and regional and international human rights bodies.

The Special Rapporteur and the New York University (NYU) Langone Division of Environmental Pediatrics hosted an event, parallel to the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, which convened human rights activists, prominent industry influencers, professionals, academics, and NGO representatives to discuss developments in science that illustrate the need for a paradigm shift in human rights and toxics discussions.