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Polluted planet: UN expert urges ambitious, urgent action to tackle human rights violations

GENEVA (10 March 2022) – As Earth becomes increasingly poisoned by toxic substances and pollution, a UN human rights expert is calling for urgent and ambitious action to curb exposures to the deadly substances, prevent pollution and rehabilitate contaminated sites.

David Boyd, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said in a report presented to the Human Rights Council today that each year pollution and toxic substances cause at least 9 million premature deaths.

“They also raise the risks of cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, adverse effects on the immune, endocrine and reproductive systems, birth defects and lifelong negative impacts on neurological development,” he said.

“Yet, hundreds of millions of tons of toxic substances continue to be released into air, water and soil annually. Pollution and toxic substances affect the enjoyment of many human rights, especially the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, but also the rights to life, health, water, food, housing, and an adequate standard of living.”

Boyd said the burden of contamination falls disproportionately on the shoulders of individuals and communities already enduring poverty, discrimination and systemic marginalization.

“The disturbing phenomenon of being more heavily affected by pollution is called environmental injustice,” he said. “Poor and marginalized communities are less likely to have access to environmental information, to participate in environmental decision-making or to have access to justice and effective remedies when their rights are jeopardized or violated.

“It is deeply distressing to see that clusters of the most heavily polluting and hazardous facilities, such as open-pit mines, smelters, petroleum refineries, chemical plants and garbage dumps tend to be located near these disadvantaged communities.”

Boyd said some areas have even been described as “sacrifice zones”, where communities suffer from extreme exposure to pollution and toxic substances. The Special Rapporteur’s report highlights more than 60 sacrifice zones from all regions of the world, communities whose inhabitants are often exploited, traumatized and stigmatized.

“While it is encouraging that there are good practices in both preventing future environmental injustices and remediating some sacrifice zones, many disturbing situations and related human rights violations remain unaddressed,” he said.

“Achieving a non-toxic environment is a human rights obligation, not an option. The recent recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the Human Rights Council should mark a turning point in society’s approach to pollution and toxic substances.

“The creation of sacrifice zones must be prevented and urgent action must be taken to prevent pollution, remediate contaminated sites, and provide medical treatment in such zones,” Boyd said.

The UN expert urged States and businesses to vigorously pursue zero pollution and the elimination of toxic substances. Prevention, precaution and non-discrimination must be the paramount principles in environmental policymaking, he added.

“A human rights-based approach to preventing exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals could save millions of lives, improve the quality of life for billions of people and save trillions of dollars,” he said.


David R. Boydthe Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, was appointed for a three-year term commencing August 1, 2018. He is an associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability at the University of British Columbia. Mr. Boyd has a PhD in Resource Management and Environmental Studies from UBC, a law degree from the University of Toronto, and a business degree from the University of Alberta. His career has included serving as the executive director of Ecojustice, appearing before the Supreme Court of Canada, and working as a special advisor on sustainability for Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. He has advised many governments on environmental, constitutional, and human rights policy and co-chaired Vancouver's effort to become the world's greenest city by 2020. He is a member of the World Commission on Environmental Law, an expert advisor for the UN's Harmony with Nature Initiative, and a member of ELAW, the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Viktoria Aberg (viktoria.aberg@un.org) or Frédérique Bourque (frederique.bourque@un.org).

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact Mr. Jeremy Laurence (+41 22 9179383/jeremy.laurence@un.org)

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