"Toxic divide" threatens billions with disease, death

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The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Photo: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre

Exposure to chemical waste is possibly the biggest cause of disease and death worldwide – and it affects children and minority groups the most, a UN human rights expert said on Thursday.

Baskut Tuncak, who's a Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances, said that billions of people find themselves on the wrong side of this "toxic divide" and unable to find redress against big business.

Mr Tuncak also raised concerns about Brexit – the UK's impending departure from the EU – saying that it might threaten established human rights protections from dangerous products.

Daniel Johnson has more.

The impacts of toxic pollution and waste are "evident", Baskut Tuncak told journalists in Geneva, but far too little is being done to address this public health crisis.

The reason for this inaction is down to States all around the world, who promote human rights abroad while ignoring domestic issues, the Special Rapporteur said.

The effects of exposure to pollution in the air, water, food and in our homes affect vulnerable groups most – and the problem is getting worse:

"Low-income communities everywhere are bearing the brunt of our inaction on toxic pollution. In all countries pollution disproportionately kills the poor with over 90 per cent of the disease burden falling on low to middle-income countries."

As part of the Special Rapporteur's mandate, he is required to go to Member States and report back to the UN Human Rights Council.

His visit earlier this year to the UK had shown progress on managing threats posed by hazardous substances, but not on air pollution, which is linked to 40,000 deaths per year.

The expert also expressed concern that Brexit "opens the door" to the UK becoming "a dumping ground for …dirty industries", as it was not clear to him how the government would replace all the EU bodies responsible for protecting people from toxic materials.

Responding to the Special Rapporteur's concerns at the Human Rights Council, UK Deputy Permanent Representative Miriam Shearman insisted that environmental protection would be an important part of EU exit negotiations.

In addition, the government planned to bring forward its commitments to significantly reduce emissions of five damaging air pollutants, Ambassador Shearman added.

Daniel Johnson, United Nations, Geneva

Duration: 1’36″


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