Vulnerable groups and toxic exposures

The most vulnerable, marginalized and susceptible to toxic exposure face disproportionate threats to life, health and bodily integrity. They suffer from cancers, miscarriages, birth defects, heart and lung impairments, learning disabilities and diabetes, among others.

Those who are most affected are often the most vulnerable members of society. They are people living in poverty, workers, children, minority groups, indigenous peoples, migrants, among other vulnerable or susceptible groups, with highly gendered impacts.

There is thus a crucial need for a focus on persons in vulnerable situations in a human-rights based approach to addressing toxic exposures.

Workers facing public health crisis

Workers around the world find themselves in the midst of a public health crisis. This is the case despite clear human rights obligations relating to the protection of their health.

The COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on the vulnerability of workers generally to exposure, and among them groups that are even more vulnerable. The mandate has called attention to the urgent need to protect all workers from the exposure to COVID-19. Many frontline workers were not given adequate protection, even during peak periods of contagion. States must better protect healthcare workers from COVID-19.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates 160 million cases of occupational diseases are reported annually. Over 2,780,000 workers globally die from unsafe or unhealthy conditions of work each year. Harms from chronic exposures to toxics at work are often latent, taking years or even decades until adverse health impacts are seen in workers or their children.

The absence of effective remedies for perhaps millions of workers exploited by exposure around the world is of grave concern.

The Special Rapporteur presented the crisis facing workers in his 2018 report to the Human Rights Council. He describes a vicious form of exploitation whereby workers most at risk of exposure are those who are most vulnerable to exploitation: the poor, children and women, migrant workers, people with disabilities and older persons. catalogues 12 specific challenges in protecting all workers from toxic exposures. A detailed annex covers cases examined by the Special Rapporteur and his predecessors from 2006. The Special Rapporteur equates much of what is described in the report to criminal conduct or legalized exploitation. Visit the report page or access the full report for more information.

The Special Rapporteur also developed a set of principles on the protection of workers from exposure to toxic substances through a series of consultations. These principles are the outgrowth of cases brought to the attention of the mandate since its inception in 1995. If implemented, these principles will contribute to strengthen synergies between human rights and occupational health and safety standards regarding the exposure of workers to toxics. They cover principles on duties and responsibilities to prevent exposure; principles regarding information, participation and assembly; and principles regarding effective remedies.

View the 15 principals on the report page or access the full report.

Following this report, the Human Rights Council adopted the first standalone resolution on workers' protection (A/HRC/RES/42/21). The resolution condemns the violations and abuses of the rights of workers in all parts of the world through unsafe exposure to toxic and hazardous substances, and encourages States, businesses and other actors to implement the 15 principles through their respective legal and policy frameworks, as well as through initiatives and programmes.

A silent pandemic affecting children

Children are uniquely vulnerable to adverse health impacts due to toxic and otherwise hazardous substances and wastes. They have higher levels of exposure and are also more sensitive to it, which makes them more vulnerable than adults.

Some children are subject to exposures to toxics and pollution even before they are born, while other exposures occur in early childhood. Many of the harmful effects are not detected for years or decades. These impacts are often irreversible and can even be passed down from one generation to the next.

The Special Rapporteur's 2016 report to the Human Rights Council was the first thematic report by a Special Rapporteur to highlight in detail the relevance of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to environment protection. In it, the Special Rapporteur denounces that children continue to be born "pre-polluted," and are denied their right to bodily integrity, among other rights, before they can even walk. Studies have shown the presence of hundreds of different toxic substances in young and unborn children. Because of widespread childhood exposure, the world is witnessing a "silent pandemic" of disease, disability and premature death. For more on the rights of the child and hazardous substances and wastes, visit the report page or view the report.

In his 2017 visit to Denmark, the Special Rapporteur commended the government's leadership in preventing exposure to endocrine disruptors and other chemicals of concern to the rights of the child. Denmark has applied the principles of prevention and precaution to protect children from toxic threats, often leading to improved standards of protection both in Denmark and abroad. See more in the full report (A/HRC/39/48/Add.2).

Indigenous peoples

Indigenous peoples around the world are increasingly faced with challenges to their rights to self-determination, and to protection from dumping of hazardous substances on their lands. Indigenous peoples often have little or no room to express their free, prior, and informed consent. For example, the Yaqui people of Sonora, Mexico have suffered grave adverse impacts on their health and dignity from the ongoing use of highly hazardous pesticides. Indigenous peoples of the Arctic have been exposed to persistent chemical pollutants never used in their lands.

The Special Rapporteur has sought to highlight the injustice endured by indigenous peoples who remain chronically exposed to hazardous substances and wastes. In 2018 and 2019, the Special Rapporteur participated in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. At its 16th session, the Forum invited the Special rapporteur to carry out a review within his mandated area of expertise and to present conclusions to the Forum.

The main focus was the incongruence of the present cluster of global treaties for chemicals and wastes with the internationally recognized human rights of indigenous peoples. He noted the demand of the UNPFII for an ambitious, global and legally binding regime for toxic industrial chemicals and hazardous pesticides that fully accounts for the rights of indigenous peoples.

The latest mandate's resolution renews the mandate's efforts to tackle the adverse consequences for persons and groups in vulnerable situations, including indigenous peoples.

Special Procedures
Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights
Recent Thematic Reports
Issues in Focus
Contact information

Dr. Marcos A. Orellana, Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights

Avenue Giuseppe Motta 48,
CH-1202 Geneva
Fax : +41 22 917 90 06

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