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Pollution kills nine million people a year, twice as many as COVID-19

Report reveals environmental "sacrifice zones", places where residents suffer devastating health consequences and have their rights violated by living in pollution hotspots and highly polluted areas
Unsplash/Jessica Palomo - Un trabajador en un desguace de coches en Prome del Norte, Ciudad Apodaca, México

Unsplash/Jessica Palomo  -   A worker at a car scrapyard in Prome del Norte, Ciudad Apodaca, Mexico.

We are poisoning ourselves and we are poisoning the planet: in his latest report, the special rapporteur* on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a healthy environment says that the poisoning of the Earth is intensifying, without public attention.

"While the climate emergency, the global biodiversity crisis and COVID-19 grab the headlines, the devastation that pollution and hazardous substances wreak on health, human rights and ecosystem integrity remains largely unnoticed. Yet pollution and toxics cause at least nine million premature deaths, double the number of deaths caused by the pandemic in its first 18 months," says David R. Boyd.

In fact, one in six deaths worldwide is linked to pollution-related diseases, three times the combined deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis and 15 times the deaths caused by war, assassinations and other forms of violence.

Air pollution is the largest environmental contributor to premature deaths, causing some seven million premature deaths each year.

Exposure to toxic substances increases the risk of premature death, acute poisoning, cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, adverse effects on the immune, endocrine and reproductive systems, birth defects and lifelong neurodevelopmental sequelae.

A quarter of the global burden of disease is attributed to preventable environmental risk factors, the vast majority of which involve exposure to pollution and toxic substances. 

Unsplash/Thomas Millot - Gases de una torre de enfriamiento, en la Central Nuclear de Cattenom, en Francia
Unsplash/Thomas Millot - Gases from a cooling tower at the Cattenom Nuclear Power Plant in France.
Poisoning is intensifying 

"The toxification of planet Earth is intensifying," says Boyd, who notes that while some substances have been banned or are being phased out, the production, use and disposal of hazardous chemicals, in general, continues to increase rapidly. 

Hundreds of millions of tonnes of toxic substances are emitted or dumped into the air, water and soil every year. Chemical production doubled between 2000 and 2017, and is expected to double again by 2030 and triple by 2050, with most of the growth occurring in countries that are not members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the result of this growth will be increased exposure to risks and worsening health and environmental impacts. 

"The world is struggling to cope with chemical threats then and now," says Boyd, who was supported in his report by the special rapporteur on the human rights implications of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, Marcos Orellana. 

For example, lead continues to be widely used despite long-known toxicity and devastating neurodevelopmental consequences in childhood. Lead causes nearly one million deaths a year, as well as devastating and irreversible damage to the health of millions of children. 

Recent concerns include perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, endocrine disruptors, microplastics, neonicotinoid pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pharmaceutical residues and nanoparticles. 

Eternal substances 

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a group of thousands of chemicals widely used in industrial and consumer applications, such as fire-fighting foams and water-repellent and lipophobic coatings for textiles, paper and kitchenware.

They are known as "forever chemicals" because of their persistence in the environment.

They are also toxic and bioaccumulative, accumulating in the tissues of living organisms and increasing in concentration as they move up the food chain.

Virtually all people in industrialised countries have perfluoroalkylated and polyfluoroalkylated substances in their bodies. Exposure to these products has been associated with liver damage, hypertension, decreased immune response, decreased fertility, lower birth weight, and testicular and kidney cancer.

In the European Union, the health-related costs of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances range from 52 to 84 billion euros per year, while the costs of treating and remediating contaminated soil and water range from 10 to 170 billion euros.

Other more well-known forms of pollution come from the extraction, processing, distribution and burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), which produce huge volumes of pollution and toxic chemicals.

Fossil fuels are also the main feedstock for the highly polluting petrochemical and plastics industries. Industrial agriculture pollutes the air, water, soil and food chain with pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilisers and dangerous drugs.

Other industries producing huge volumes of pollution and toxic substances include mining and smelting, manufacturing, textiles, construction and transport. 

ONU Medio Ambiente - Un río contaminado en Sudán. La mala gestión de residuos y sustancias nocivas está afectando el medio ambiente de los centros urbanos
ONU Medio Ambiente - A polluted river in Sudan. Mismanagement of waste and pollutants is affecting the environment in urban centres.
Ubiquitous pollution 

Toxic pollutants are ubiquitous today, from the highest peaks of the Himalayas to the depths of the Mariana Trench.

Humans are exposed to toxic substances through breathing, food and drink, skin contact and through the umbilical cord in the womb. Biomonitoring studies reveal the presence of pesticide residues, phthalates, flame retardants, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, heavy metals and microplastics in our bodies. Toxic substances are even found in newborn babies.

Moreover, all these toxic substances are linked to the other two aspects of the triple global environmental crisis: the climate emergency and the decline of biodiversity.

The chemical industry exacerbates the climate emergency by consuming more than 10 per cent of the world's fossil fuels and emitting some 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases each year.

Global warming contributes to the release and mobilisation of dangerous pollutants from melting glaciers and permafrost.

Pollution and toxics are also one of the top five drivers of catastrophic biodiversity decline, with particularly negative effects on pollinators, insects, freshwater and marine ecosystems (including coral reefs) and bird populations. 

Pollution is also an issue of inequality 

While all humans are exposed to pollution and toxic chemicals, there is compelling evidence that the burden of pollution falls disproportionately on individuals, groups and communities that already bear the brunt of systemic poverty, discrimination and marginalisation.

Low- and middle-income countries are the hardest hit by pollution-related diseases, accounting for nearly 92 per cent of pollution-related deaths. In addition, more than 750,000 workers die annually from exposure to toxic substances in the work environment, including particulate matter, asbestos, arsenic and diesel exhaust.

Unsafe waste management, including dumping, open burning and informal processing of e-waste, lead batteries and plastics, exposes hundreds of millions of people in the Global South to chemical cocktails such as brominated flame retardants, phthalates, dioxins, heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and bisphenol A, the rapporteur denounces.

Women, children, minorities, migrants, indigenous peoples, older persons and persons with disabilities are potentially vulnerable, for a variety of economic, social, cultural and biological reasons. Workers, especially in low- and middle-income countries, are at risk because of high workplace exposures, poor working conditions, low awareness of chemical hazards and lack of access to health care. And millions of children work in potentially hazardous sectors such as agriculture, mining and tanning, while social housing contains asbestos, lead, formaldehyde and other toxic substances

OMS - Los desechos de aparatos electrónicos viejos son la basura doméstica que más rápidamente crece en el mundo
OMS - Waste from old electronic equipment is the fastest growing household waste in the world
Slaughter sites 

Contaminated sites are often located in deprived communities. In Europe, there are an estimated 2.8 million contaminated sites, while in the United States, more than 1,000 national priority clean-up sites have been identified among hundreds of thousands of contaminated sites.

In low- and middle-income countries, new contaminated sites are being generated by industrialisation (e.g. coal-fired power plants) and extractivism (e.g. artisanal and small-scale gold mining). In many states, clean-up and remediation is delayed due to lack of available funds.

Boyd reveals the existence of "sacrifice zones", where communities are exposed to extreme levels of pollution and toxic substances.

"Some communities are subject to environmental injustices in the form of such extreme exposure to pollution and toxic substances in their places of residence that they have become known as sacrifice zones. The phrase originated in the Cold War era, when it designated areas rendered uninhabitable by nuclear experiments in the United States, the Soviet Union, France and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which resulted in persistent high levels of radiation," the human rights expert explains.

Today, a sacrifice zone can be understood as a place whose residents suffer devastating physical and mental health consequences and violations of their rights.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, he identifies several such zones: 

  • In Chile, he points to Quintero-Puchuncaví, an industrial complex with oil refineries, petrochemical facilities, coal-fired power plants, gas terminals and a copper smelter. In 2018, a major air pollution incident sickened hundreds of schoolchildren. 
  • In La Oroya, Peru, where there is a lead smelter, a staggering 99% of children have blood lead levels above acceptable limits. 
  • Also in Peru, in Cerro de Pasco, residents are exposed to heavy metals because of a huge open-pit mine. 
  • Water and soil in Guadeloupe and Martinique (France) are contaminated by dangerous levels of the pesticide chlordecone. Ninety per cent of the inhabitants have chlordecone in their blood, which increases the risk of developing cancer. In addition, landfills in many Caribbean countries regularly catch fire, generating extremely hazardous chemicals.

"The fact that sacrifice zones continue to exist is a stain on the collective conscience of humanity. Often created with the collusion of governments and companies, sacrifice zones are in direct contradiction to sustainable development and undermine the interests of present and future generations. People living in sacrifice zones are exploited, traumatised and stigmatised. They are treated as disposable, their voice is ignored, their presence in decision-making processes is excluded, and their dignity and human rights are trampled upon. Sacrifice zones exist in rich and poor states, in the North and in the South," says Boyd. 

UNSPLASH/Beth Jnr - Unos residuos tóxicos, en una hermosa playa
UNSPLASH/Beth Jnr - Toxic waste on a beautiful beach.
Environmental injustices 

Many environmental injustices are transnational, as consumption in rich states has serious consequences for health, ecosystems and human rights in other states.

High-income states continue to irresponsibly export hazardous materials such as pesticides, plastic waste, e-waste, used oil and discarded vehicles, along with their associated health and environmental risks, to low- and middle-income countries, taking advantage of the fact that these countries often have less stringent regulations and limited enforcement.

EU companies planned to export more than 81,000 tonnes of banned pesticides in 2018.

Approximately 80 per cent of shipbreaking takes place on beaches in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where unprotected workers are exposed to toxic chemicals.

In some countries, up to 95% of e-waste is processed informally by unskilled workers without proper equipment, exposing them to significant levels of heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, brominated flame retardants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxins. 

Corporate responsibility 

Boyd believes that companies should exercise due diligence on human rights and the environment and respect human rights in all aspects of their operations, but says there are countless examples of companies violating the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by creating pollution or exposing people to toxic substances.

In addition, large companies that contribute to the burden of pollution and exposure to toxic substances at slaughter sites are not fulfilling their human rights responsibilities.

A market failure of catastrophic proportions is occurring in slaughter zones, as companies maximise profits while externalising health and environmental costs to vulnerable and marginalised communities.

Companies operating in slaughter areas should install pollution control equipment, switch to clean fuels, change their processes, reduce production and, if necessary, relocate.

Companies are also responsible for the clean-up and rehabilitation of communities, land, water and ecosystems contaminated by their operations.

 Unsplash/Marcin Jozwiak - Vista aérea de la ciudad Poznań, Polonia
Unsplash/Marcin Jozwiak - Aerial view of the city Poznań, Poland
Recommendations 

In the report, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council, the rapporteur makes a number of recommendations to states, including urgently detoxifying sacrifice zones and eliminating environmental injustices.

*The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what are 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 for the Council's independent investigative and monitoring mechanisms that deal with specific country situations or thematic issues around 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 of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

**David Boyd is Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

***Marcos Orellana is special rapporteur on the human rights implications of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.