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Opening remarks by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak at the 73rd session of the U.N. General Assembly

New York, 25 October 2018

Excellences, distinguished delegates, colleagues, friends,

Exploitation can take many forms.  In my report to you today, I describe a particularly vicious form of exploitation: exposure to toxic substances.

Over two million workers die every year from occupational diseases, nearly one million from toxic exposures alone.  Approximately 20 workers will have died prematurely from such exposures at work by the time I finish my opening remarks to you.  Workers, however, are not the only ones being exploited by exposure to toxic substances.  

Today, much of the world finds itself on the wrong side of a toxic divide.  Exposure to toxic pollution is now estimated to be the largest source of premature death in the developing world, killing more people than HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.  However, this is a public health crisis that is present in all countries, from the wealthiest to the least industrialized. 

Pediatricians describe children today as born “pre-polluted” to a cocktail of unquestionably toxic substances, many of which have no safe level of exposure or are years later demonstrated to be more toxic than initially assumed.  A silent pandemic of disease, disability and premature death is now widespread, in significant part due to childhood exposure during sensitive periods of development.

The diseases and disabilities that result from exposure to toxic substances are cruel. They include the excruciating pains of cancer, the suffocating torture of respiratory diseases, and the psychological torment of parents watching the impacts of their own exposures materialize in their children. 

Furthering the suffering of victims is the audacious behavior of certain States and businesses that go to unimaginable lengths to deny impacts on health, set permissible exposure levels that will undoubtedly cause adverse health impacts, or go as far as blaming the victims themselves for the misuse of toxic substances, even when labeled in foreign languages or symbols.

The particularly heinous nature of this exploitation is that there are almost always alternatives to prevent or minimize exposure.  Solutions to this abuse and violation of human rights are available, should States choose to compel businesses to adopt them.  Unfortunately, in the vast majority of States, efforts in this regard are grossly inadequate.

I would like to highlight a few of the cases brought to my attention in recent years that I mention in my report.

For example, the sale of untested consumer products in Korea tragically claimed the lives of dozens of newborn babies, pregnant women and older persons.  In 2015 the number of recognized deaths was 95 with over 200 injured from inhaling the toxic product.  Assessments of the actual number of victims is still ongoing, with 1300 total claims made to date. 

The report also includes, as an example from just one city, the 40,000 premature deaths per year due to air pollution in London, and one woman’s struggle for an acknowledgement that toxic air pollution far in excess of EU requirements and WHO recommendations may have caused or contributed to the death of her 9-year-old daughter. 

It also includes the plight of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian families in Kosovo, housed in UN camps constructed on toxic wasteland between 2009-2013.  These families are still struggling to realize their right to an effective remedy for lead poisoning from the United Nations and its Member States.   No Member State has contributed to the UN trust fund established one year ago.

And it includes the case of evacuees from Fukushima compelled to return to areas that the Government did not consider safe before the nuclear disaster.  Following the disaster, the level of acceptable exposure to radiation was raised from 1 to 20 mSv/yr, with potentially grave impacts on the rights of young children returning to or born in contaminated areas.

These are a few of over a dozen examples I provide to you, in industries ranging from extractives, to chemical production to waste disposal. 

In my report, I outline two existing opportunities to strengthen global protections of health from toxic exposures.  The ongoing global negotiations to develop the “post-2020” global framework for toxic chemicals and wastes is necessary to advance SDG targets on poverty, health, food, water, and sustainable production, among others, that require a reduction in toxic exposures. This in my view is a tremendous opportunity to craft a strong, global agreement to improve human health by preventing and minimizing toxic exposures globally.

Many of the cases brought to the attention of my mandate result from the abuse of double standards between countries, enabled by a limited patchwork of global treaties for toxic chemicals.  These global instruments only ban or restrict the use or emission of less than 0.1% of toxic industrial chemicals and pesticides of global concern to which workers and communities are exposed.  

Many of the allegations brought to this mandate highlight the ways in which preventable diseases and disabilities are externalized upon the vulnerable through globalized supply chains, leaving devastating impacts.  In this regard, I highlight the opportunity for States to use mandatory human rights due diligence to compel business to identify, monitory, prevent and mitigate the risks of toxic exposures in their supply chains.

In conclusion, it is my pleasure to present the first report to the UN General Assembly in the mandate’s 23-year history.  I believe that this new and additional request reflects the growing awareness of the global public health crisis of toxic substances and wastes, and the need for a global response. 

I look forward to your questions and comments.

Thank you.