Chemicals: a human rights issue
Twenty years ago, Melanie was a normal nine-year-old child. But an event that year changed her life. The collapse of a mine tailings dam in her town in Marinduque killed their river and dumped two million tons of poisonous chemicals in Calancan Bay, a major food source. After the disaster, people—particularly children— started getting sick. Today, Melanie is the lone survivor among many children who suffered extreme lead poisoning. But her life is far from normal; she has regressed into a toddler, unable to speak or do things for herself.
Melanie’s case is extremely tragic. But equally tragic is that her case is not unique. Millions around the world suffer from pollution. Not all cases are high-profile disasters—every day, people are exposed to poisons in insidious ways: in the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Many everyday products now contain dangerous chemicals that are not restricted nor controlled or, worse, undisclosed to the public. The majority of those affected are the poor and vulnerable, particularly women and children, who suffer a disproportionate burden from exposure to toxic chemicals. In most cases, people have been unable to achieve justice.
To put it in perspective, pollution caused by the improper production, use and disposal of chemicals and wastes is considered to be the largest cause of disease and death in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 8.9 million deaths in 2012 can be attributed to pollution. An estimated 3.8 million deaths occurred in Southeast Asia.
Chemicals have ushered progress for humankind, but they are not benign. Many chemicals are potentially harmful. The use and management of toxic chemicals are essentially a human rights issue. The improper management of chemicals threatens people’s fundamental rights to life, food, water, health, livelihood and adequate living conditions.
However, the significant burden of pollution on human life has not led to the creation of robust chemicals management policies to protect these entitlements. Current chemical policies are based on the risk-based approach. This approach accepts the hazards of toxic chemicals and prescribes measures to mitigate the risks, such as defining “acceptable” exposure levels.
Many governments and corporations favor this myopic view that has given rise to the belief that pollution is the inevitable price of progress. Thus, instead of placing the burden on businesses to innovate, the burden is shifted to people to accept—and live with—pollution.
In contrast, the rights-based approach to managing chemicals topples this unjust paradigm and considers people’s safety first. Using the human rights lens as a starting point for managing toxic chemicals rightfully places the burden on businesses to ensure that their activities do not threaten people’s rights. It puts the responsibility to innovate—develop and use substances that aren’t harmful—in their hands.
Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go in mainstreaming the human rights approach to chemicals management. New challenges and trends are compounding the current situation: the increasing number of chemicals developed without adequate testing; the growing political influence of corporations; and mounting threats to human rights as a whole.
As principal duty bearers, governments must realize they are obligated to adopt the rights-based approach to chemicals management. States must respect, protect and fulfill human rights at each stage of the chemicals life cycle, from production to disposal, and ensure that adequate remedies are accessible to those who suffer adverse impacts. And equally important, they must require businesses to do the same and be held accountable for lapses.
This is a key lesson particularly for our region, which is undergoing rapid industrialization. Southeast Asian governments must seek to urgently close the huge human rights gap in the management of chemicals, and uphold the fulfillment of human rights in order to realize sustainable and equitable development.
Richard Gutierrez is chief executive officer of BAN Toxics.
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