The UN's special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances has drawn the attention of the organisation's General Assembly to "a particularly vicious form of exploitation: exposure to toxic substances".
In the first report of his mandate to the body, Baskut Tuncak said: "Exposure to hazardous substances is fundamentally about the right to life, non discrimination and the right to bodily integrity."
More than two million workers die every year from occupational diseases – nearly one million from toxic exposures alone, Mr Tuncak said in presenting the report in New York on 25 October. "Approximately 20 workers will have died prematurely from such exposures at work by the time I finish my opening remarks," he said.
And he highlighted the "audacious behaviour" of certain states that "go to unimaginable lengths to deny impacts on health, set permissible exposure levels that will undoubtedly cause adverse health impacts, or go as far as blaming the victims themselves for the misuse of toxic substances, even when labelled in foreign languages or symbols."
There are almost always alternatives to prevent or minimise exposure, Mr Tuncak said.
"Solutions to this abuse and violation of human rights are available, should states choose to compel businesses to adopt them. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of states, efforts in this regard are grossly inadequate," he said.
The 21-page report – On the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste – points to opportunities to strengthen protections of health from chemical exposures. It also highlights the continuing negotiations to develop a post-2020 global framework for managing hazardous substances and waste.
And it makes a number of recommendations, including:
- the need for a broader, more detailed discussion on human rights and exposure to hazardous substances;
- the global community should adopt an international instrument under the post-2020 framework to prevent and minimise toxic exposures; and
- states should support and actively engage in the development of legally binding instruments on businesses at national, regional and global levels.
In September, Mr Tuncak presented a report to the UN's Human Rights Council in Geneva, proposing 15 principles to help governments and businesses better protect workers from exposure to hazardous chemicals. The report set out findings from his four years of monitoring the issue in industries and countries around the world.