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Opening Remarks, by the Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes Marcos A. Orellana at the 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

21 September 2021

Excellencies, Distinguished delegates, Colleagues,

Cancer Alley, an area in the State of Louisiana that is known for its outsize number of chemical and petrochemical plants, has some of the highest estimated cancer risks in the United States.

In 2018 local authorities approved what would become the largest plastics facility in the world.  The Formosa Plastics project would roughly double toxic emissions in the area.

Disinformation and distortion of science are two factors that result in sacrifice zones like Cancer Alley, and in new plastics projects like Formosa’s.

Recycling of plastics is a clear example of disinformation in the context of toxics.  Recycling is widely considered as a potential solution to plastic waste.  However, investigative journalists have uncovered that the recycling messaging was crafted, not by environmental groups, but by the plastics industry.  This in full knowledge that less than 10% of plastics are actually recycled;  and that recycling concentrates the myriad toxic substances that are added to plastics.

As a result of industry-led disinformation campaigns, plastics have caused a global crisis.  The residents of Cancer Alley are paying an exorbitant price for it.

Disinformation is not unique to plastics, however.  There are numerous examples of tactics by industry, and also by governments, to delay controls, divert attention, and escape effective accountability for exposure to dangerous substances.

The report I am presenting today is about the human right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, in the context of toxics.

Science informs us about the risks and harms of hazardous substances on human health and the environment. Science also allows for the design of evidence-based policies to address those threats. The right to science thus can act as a powerful antidote against disinformation in the toxics context.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right of everyone to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights expands on this human right. Several regional human rights instruments, and several national constitutions, also recognize the right to science, in varying formulations.

This right has immense implications on other human rights, such as the rights to life with dignity, health, non-discrimination, safe work, clean air and safe water, and the right to a healthy environment.

Still, the right to science has until recently been largely ignored by the human rights community.  It is high time this right gets the attention and implementation it deserves.

The right to science requires that governments adopt measures to prevent exposure to hazardous substances, on the basis of the best available scientific evidence.  Scientific breakthroughs regarding harmful substances or processes should lead governments to adopt timely and effective measures to provide protection to populations.  The right to science also implies an enabling environment, where scientific freedoms may be realized, and where governments foster scientific research on toxic substances that endanger public health.

Of course, science does not establish definitive links between toxics and their effects for all substances, in all situations, and at all times.  Science is an incremental process of constant interrogation and review, with unavoidable knowledge gaps and uncertainties.  In this regard, the precautionary principle, as an element of due diligence, offers an important tool to address such uncertainties.

Today, however, the intentional spread of misinformation regarding scientific evidence undermines our ability to benefit from scientific knowledge. Disinformation has become a powerful tool for manipulating public understanding and debate, generating confusion and mistrust in science.

It has become a lucrative business to propagate doubt about the dangers and harms of hazardous substances.  Certain businesses specialize in deliberately sowing uncertainty and misunderstanding in society.  Denial, misdirection, and distortion tactics are used to keep hazardous products on the market, all with impunity.  This is taking place at the expense of proper protections for human rights.

The report speaks to well-documented examples. How the asbestos industry has obstructed national, and even international regulations, by promoting campaigns that claim asbestos is not dangerous, or that asbestos can be used safely. How manufacturers of highly hazardous pesticides have pressured or misled governments to escape bans or limits.  How companies that produce endocrine disrupting chemicals, which rob children from their youth, have actively twisted facts or diverted attention to avoid or delay controls and protections.

Such business tactics are a direct attack on the right to science and are incompatible with the human rights responsibilities of businesses.

Attacks on scientists are particularly offensive.  When scientists publish or speak out about the hazards and consequences of toxic substances, they are frequently the target of campaigns that harass, threaten, or undermine them and their families.  Together with scientists, science is silenced.

Whistle-blower protections, and existing national and international tools for protecting human rights defenders, must be proactively used to support and protect scientists who sound the alarm on the risks and harms of hazardous substances.

The right to science implies that truthful scientific information be available and accessible.  This includes scientific evidence which serves as the basis for policymaking and legislation, including underlying data.  Information on hazardous substances should not be kept away from the public domain.

Yet, unwarranted claims of confidential business information, as well as secrecy agreements in the settlement of cases involving toxics, impede access to information that is critical to protect people from the risks and harms of toxics.

In order to seize the potential of the right to science, effective channels connecting science and policymaking must be created and enhanced.  I am referring to platforms for science-policy interfaces that are free of ideology, politicization, lack of transparency, vested economic interests, and other conflicts of interest.

Time is ripe for states to join efforts in international cooperation and strengthen the science-policy interface on chemicals and waste.  This would translate into establishing a global science policy interface platform that is free of conflict of interests.  Such a platform would help tackle the severe toxics crisis affecting humanity.

The right to science also requires that governments take steps to correct the public record or issue clarifications when scientific information is misrepresented.  These measures are vital to prevent harm to persons, communities or the environment resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.

Some governments are taking measures.  In January of this year, the new US administration issued an Executive Order, to restore science to protect public health and the environment.  The order directs the US government to advance environmental justice, guided by the best available science.

Just last month, the US government placed a hold on the Formosa plastics facility in Louisiana and required a detailed environmental review.  Residents in the area celebrated, with a renewed sense of hope for their communities.  It is difficult not to notice the link between the executive order on environmental justice and science, and the suspension of the Formosa project.

Madame Vice-President, Distinguished delegates,

We are in the midst of a triple environmental crisis of pollution, climate change and loss of nature that threatens to render the world uninhabitable for humanity.  The planetary emergency will not go away unless disinformation is tackled, awareness is raised, and robust action is taken.  The right to science gives us the drive and the tools to do precisely that.

Thank you very much for your attention.  I look forward to your comments and questions.