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Key Messages on Human Rights and Hazardous Substances

Pollution is the largest source of premature death in the developing world, causing approximately three times more deaths than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined (2018 Report of the Lancet Commission on pollution and health). It disproportionately affects persons, groups and peoples in vulnerable situations reflecting both historical and ongoing discrimination, racism, and power imbalances that have given rise to powerful social movements for environmental justice.
Those responsible for the harmful impacts of hazardous substances must be held legally accountable for them through the application of human rights laws, norms and standards. Meanwhile, effective international and national measures must be employed to prevent future harms. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global Chemicals Outlook II emphasizes that ambitious, global action by all stakeholders is required to minimize the adverse impacts of hazardous chemicals and wastes.
The complete lifecycle of “hazardous substances,” a term used here to include all toxics and wastes that have adverse effects on human health and on the environment, starting from their manufacturing and transport, to use, to trade, and eventually disposal, can have an enormous impact on the enjoyment of fundamental human rights, such as the rights to life, to the highest attainable standard of health, to food, to clean water and sanitation, to housing, and the right to a healthy environment.
Given the impact of hazardous substances on human rights including the rights to health and life, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UNEP have issued the following Key Messages to highlight the human rights obligations and responsibilities of States and other duty-bearers, such as businesses, to prevent and remedy the harmful effects of hazardous substances.