Every year, 1.7 million children die because they live in unhealthy environments. More than one in four deaths of all children under the age of five are the result of air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, inadequate hygiene, or other environmental risks. The problem has grown so severe that doctors are calling it a “silent pandemic”.
“The rights of children to life, health and physical integrity [are] being abused by steady exposure to a multitude of toxic substances,” said Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Toxics. “States have a duty to prevent childhood exposure to toxics and pollution.”
“Toxics and pollution are an insidious threat to human rights, and children in low-income, indigenous, and marginalized communities bear a disproportionate burden of the impacts,” 1.7 million children die because they live in he added. “To defend the most defenseless we need not only effective legislation, regulation and enforcement nationally, but effective international cooperation.”
Tuncak made the remarks at the University of Geneva, where he gave a talk on toxics and human rights with UN Environment’s leading authority on environmental law, Elizabeth Mrema.
Tuncak’s most recent report calls into question the adequacy of state measures to protect children from toxics, citing ample evidence that the problem is not limited to the developing world.
In the community of Flint, Michigan in the United States, where nearly 30 per cent of people live below the poverty line, as many as 12,000 children were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water. And in The Republic of Korea, 90 people died after being exposed to an untested, under-regulated consumer product used in humidifiers. The dead were predominantly babies and pregnant women.
“Health impacts linked to childhood exposure to toxics – including lead – often do not manifest for years and can include cancer, developmental disorders, learning disabilities, and respiratory illnesses,” said Mrema of UN Environment. “That’s why we’re working with the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint to provide guidance to legislators in the design of laws to ban lead in paint. And through our support for the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata conventions, UN Environment is supporting better regulation of hazardous substances that have a particularly severe impact on the health of children. But more needs to be done.”
UN Environment is finalizing a major report on pollution that will be launched at the UN Environment Assembly in December. The report will describe ways that governments can address pollution in all its forms, including the legal responses required to mitigate the threat of human exposure to hazardous substances.
For more information please contact communications and information management officer Niamh Brannigan: +254 717733348 niamh.brannigan[at]unep.org