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Duty to prevent people from toxic exposures

Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

In 1962, 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."

The dangers of exposure to toxic pollutants have been known for decades. Yet 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. This is likely to be an underestimate due to known information gaps. By comparison, this rate 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.

State's duty in preventing exposure

States are required by international human rights law to take active measures to prevent the exposure of individuals and communities to toxic substances. Since Rachel Carson's warning nearly sixty years ago, States have taken positive steps. Yet prevention continues to be the exception, not the norm. No State will meet their obligations to protect, respect and fulfill human rights without taking greater measures to prevent exposure.


Duty to prevent exposure to the virus responsible for COVID (2020)

The Special Rapporteur applies the duty to prevent exposure framework to COVID-19 in this 2020 report. He commends certain States and business for upholding their duty and responsibility to prevent exposure to the coronavirus. He highlights key elements common among those who have failed. He identifies key challenges and issues with the management of the pandemic, highlighting underlying reasons for governments and businesses' failures. He looks at the consequences for vulnerable groups such as children and underprivileged people. The Special Rapporteur calls on States to better protect vulnerable groups. He also points out that States must safeguard nature and improve environmental quality, noting the critical role played by a healthy and sustainable environment in preventing such pandemics, and mitigating severity of infection.

For more on the report and its methodology, view the report page.

Duty to prevent exposure (2019)

In October 2019, the Special Rapporteur on toxics presented a report to the UN General Assembly on the duty to prevent exposure. Building upon his 2016 report to the Human Rights Council on the duty to prevent childhood exposure, this report clarifies the State's duty to prevent exposure, and its legal foundation. States have a duty to "prevent and minimize" exposure to hazardous substances to protect against preventable diseases and disabilities, considering prevention as precondition to such duty. This duty is derived from the rights to life, health, dignity and bodily integrity; the right to information and the right to a healthy environment; as well as equality and access to an effective remedy. However, an approach of prevention is the exception for many entities, leading to existential threats to life and health, such as reproductive health.

Visit the report page or access the report A/74/480

Related event: Prevent, Reduce, Protect

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

Video, related documents and statements