GENEVA (3 March 2016) – Today, a group of United Nations human rights experts called on the United States to increase its efforts to address environmental threats to human rights.
Recent outrage over lead-contaminated water in the town of Flint, Michigan, has drawn international scrutiny to the toxic threats faced by children, particularly in poor, African-American, minority, and Native American communities, in the US.
The group of UN experts on hazardous wastes, health, water and sanitation, indigenous peoples, minorities, and racism described the issue as one of human rights, and urged the US to protect the rights of children and others who are most at-risk from pollution and toxic chemicals.
Their appeal comes as US presidential candidates are debating issues confronting Flint and other communities at risk this week in Michigan.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to the children of Flint and to the countless other victims of lead poisoning in the United States and around the world”, the UN experts said. “Lead poisoning is preventable. No parent should have to endure the mental torment that will haunt parents in Flint, and no child should be denied the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”
Exposure to toxic chemicals and pollution, the experts underlined, affect the right to safe water, the right to adequate housing, the right to safe food, as well as the right to health, among others, including the rights of the child and indigenous peoples. Also, disproportionate levels of exposure invoke questions of discrimination and inequality.
“Those who need the most support and protection often face the greatest risk from pollution and toxic substances,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak. “For many communities in the US and around the world, the risks are growing. Far more is needed to protect human rights from toxic threats.”
The experts noted that across the United States nearly twice as many African-American children (5.6 percent) have high levels of lead in their bloodstream as compared with white children (2.4 percent). The majority of people in Flint, Michigan are African-American (57 percent). Forty-two percent of residents are below the poverty line. Across the State of Michigan as a whole, 14 percent is African-American and 16 percent live in poverty.
Lead is only one of many toxic chemicals to which minorities and the poor are often disproportionately exposed. A recent report has found that minorities in the US comprise nearly half the population (11.4 million people) living near potential sources of toxic emissions, and they are almost twice as likely as whites to live on the “fenceline.” More than one-quarter of children (1.6 million) living in these hazardous areas are children under the age of five, whose developing bodies are especially vulnerable to the adverse health impacts of toxic chemical exposure.
“Unfortunately, Flint is just one of countless communities around the world who are victims of pollution and toxic chemicals”, the experts noted. “Exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals is a human rights issue. But, it is a human rights issue for which solutions are possible”.
“We commend President Obama for declaring a federal state of emergency to accelerate the distribution of bottled water and filters to the people of Flint”, said Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. “However, much more must be done to protect those who live in vulnerable situations and to restore a safe permanent water supply”.
Specifically, the UN experts urged the United States Government to:
• Ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, without reservation.
• Show leadership in reducing the risks related to toxic chemicals at home and abroad and addressing the issues raised by toxic chemicals and pollution as a human rights issue.
• Strengthen protections for the most marginalized and those in vulnerable situations from hazardous substances, especially children, the poor, and minorities by addressing the underlying determinants of health, including access to safe food, to clean water, healthy occupational and environmental conditions, and access to health-related education and information.
• Take legislative and regulatory actions to protect the rights of those to most at risk by requiring the use of safer chemicals and technologies whenever possible.
• Enhance access to and quality of health care facilities, services, and goods in affected areas, paying particular attention to the socio-epidemiological profile of the situation.