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Countries Must Follow Science on Toxic Substance Exposure: Special Rapporteur

 

Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, has urged countries to follow the science with respect to exposure to toxic substances, and called out companies that manipulate information and use denial, misdirection, and distortion tactics to keep their products on the market. 

Orellana presented his report on the 'Right to Science in the Context of Toxic Chemicals' to the Human Rights Council on 21 September 2021. He warned that disinformation about scientific evidence on hazardous substances has become a powerful tool for manipulating public understanding and debate. This has led to confusion, doubt, and mistrust in science. He said this is taking place at the expense of proper human rights protections.

The right to science requires governments to correct the public record when scientific information has been misrepresented.

Orellana said the right to science “provides humanity with tools to confront the severe toxification of the planet and overcome the triple environmental crisis of pollution, climate change and loss of nature." He said it requires governments to: adopt and align measures to prevent exposure to hazardous substances based on the best available scientific evidence and scientific breakthroughs; and take steps to correct the public record or issue clarifications when scientific information is misrepresented. The right to science implies scientific information be available and accessible, and enables the development of evidence-based policies to address threats posed by hazardous substances.

The Special Rapporteur's report highlights ways for States and other stakeholders to join efforts to establish a science-policy interface (SPI) platform on chemicals and waste that is free of conflicts of interest. Such a platform could identify emerging issues of concern and produce authoritative scientific assessments to prevent exposure to harmful chemicals and waste. 

During an interactive dialogue with the HRC, Orellana highlighted plastic recycling as an example of disinformation in the context of toxics. He said while recycling is considered a potential solution to plastic waste, investigative journalists uncovered that the recycling message was crafted not by environmental groups, but by the plastics industry. With less than 10% of plastics actually being recycled, recycling actually concentrates the toxic substances added to plastics.  

During the discussion, speakers noted the relevance of the Special Rapporteur’s report, saying it makes it possible to highlight the correlation between science and policy, particularly the consideration of scientific advances in the context of the development of public policies that protect human rights. They also reiterated the importance of policies based on scientific knowledge to ensure the protection of human rights, particularly of those exposed to hazardous products and wastes. Speakers also said States are responsible for ensuring  the right to science is respected and promoted, by prioritizing and the means to public research. [OHCHR press release: Follow the science] [OHCHR press release: Plastic recycling as disinformation] [Remarks to HRC] [Publication: Right to Science in the Context of Toxic Substances] [SDG Knowledge Hub story on report] [Webpage of Special Rapporteur]