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Toxic air pollution: UN rights experts urge tighter rules to combat “invisible threat”

GENEVA (24 February 2017) – United Nations human rights experts are calling for strong, urgent action by States, including legislation and enforcement of corporate accountability, to try to ensure that people around the world can enjoy the human rights to life and health in environments free from contamination.

“Air pollution is a major human rights concern worldwide and toxic air pollutants are associated with an increased risk of disease from stroke, heart disease, cancer and respiratory diseases, including asthma,” the experts said.

Estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO), suggest that approximately seven million premature deaths each year are linked to exposure to air pollution. There is growing research evidence indicating that air pollution has become the leading environmental cause of premature death in the world.

The appeal for better regulation comes from the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, together with his fellow UN experts, Dainius Puras, John H Knox and Rosa Kornfeld-Matte.* The UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises joined the other experts in expressing concern.

“Children and people in vulnerable situations, including women of reproductive age, older persons, those in poor health and those living in less wealthy communities remain the most vulnerable,” the experts warned.

According to UNICEF, 300 million children – almost one in seven of the world’s total, live in areas with the most toxic levels of outdoor air pollution. And the experts stress that paediatricians are referring to the impact on children’s health as a ‘silent pandemic’.

“A threat like this can no longer be ignored,” they say. “States have a duty to prevent and control exposure to toxic air pollution and to protect against its adverse effects on human rights.”

The experts point to an ‘unacceptable’ lack of accountability saying: “Impunity for those responsible for air pollution is rampant today, with recent reports of environmental ministers even denying its effects, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and urgent action is needed now under international human rights standards.

“Cross-border cooperation is necessary to promote the adoption of preventive and control measures in the energy, industrial and transportation sectors”, they emphasized.

“As well as strong and fully implemented legislation, we need investment in infrastructures and long-term incentives for pollution reduction and technological innovation. Improving the regulation of toxic emissions from industrial sources and vehicles, strengthening waste management and recycling practices, and promoting renewable energies are crucial steps to effectively address air quality issues and public health,” the experts concluded.


(*) Mr. Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes; Mr. Dainius Pûras, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Mr. John H. Knox, Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment; Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons; Michael K. Addo, Chairman of the Working Group on the issue of Human Rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of the Special Procedures of 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 Alessandro Marra (+41 22 91 79 882) or write to srtoxicwaste@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Bryan Wilson, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9826 / mediaconsultant1@ohchr.org)  

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