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Exposure to toxic substances threatens human rights, UN expert says

Governments must protect populations, says attorney and chemist Baskut Tuncak

by Paula Dupraz-Dobias, special to C&EN
October 30, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 43


Still from a video of Baskut Tuncak presenting a report to the United Nations.
Credit: United Nations
Baskut Tuncak, the UN special rapporteur on hazardous substances and waste, presented the report on Oct. 24.

Environmental and human exposure to toxic substances is a global crisis, according to a report presented at the United Nations on Oct. 24.

Baskut Tuncak, the UN special rapporteur on hazardous substances and waste, presented the report to the General Assembly in New York, saying that “Our incessant exposure to pollution and other sources of toxic substances poses a global threat to human rights, including to our right to reproductive health.”

Though governments have the duty to protect their populations from exposure to the substances, Tuncak’s report says, most are failing not only to prevent exposure but also “to acknowledge and understand the catastrophic impacts of their inaction on people both within and outside their jurisdictions."

The report lists examples where increasing plastic pollution, exposure to pesticides, air pollution, and heavy metal contamination of food have led to adverse health effects.

Tuncak, an attorney and chemist, is one of several dozen specialists who investigate and monitor human rights issues on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council.

In September, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution encouraging governments and businesses to ensure that workers are protected from the adverse effects of toxic substances. In that resolution, the UN urged “strengthening of the global regime for chemicals management to prevent and minimize unsafe exposure to hazardous substances, to promote the right of everyone, including workers, to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and to just and favourable conditions of work."


This story was updated on Oct. 31, 2019, to fix the wording of the quote from Tuncak's report to match the report.



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