The vulnerability of workers, communities, and ecosystems in developing nations to the damaging effects of chemical exposures and pollution has been recognized and expressed for decades in the international community, primarily through declarations of the United Nations (UN). These declarations, while not carrying the force of law, nevertheless express an international consensus on the imperative of protecting public health and ecosystems in the context of human rights. They do so both directly and implicitly by calling for primary prevention approaches. As noted below, recent declarations call for upstream, pollution prevention strategies, for example, which seek to avoid the production of toxic substances and hazardous waste at the source, thereby protecting all downstream environmental media and precluding all human exposure pathways. In this way, pollution prevention strategies facilitate environmental justice and equity, in that—by definition—they avoid the otherwise inevitable, disproportionate distribution of toxic substances and hazardous waste into poor and disadvantaged communities and nations.
Pollution prevention differs from end-of-pipe approaches (such as personal protective equipment for workers, or hazardous waste site remediation) which—though important in the short term—ultimately displace health and environmental damage onto the most vulnerable populations, thus perpetuating environmental racism and injustice. End-of-pipe approaches are simply unable to keep pace with the scale of global chemical production and its concomitant health and ecosystem impacts, particularly in the global South. Pollution prevention, therefore, is a primary prevention strategy that is grounded in broadly accepted principles of human rights.
The linkages between primary prevention and human rights find their roots in the founding Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established in 1948, which articulated key elements of occupational and environmental health protection. This includes Article 21, which establishes the right of individuals to work in just and favorable conditions and to form and join trade unions. The United Nations General Assembly of 1966 adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which reiterates in Part III, Article 7 rights to “just and favorable conditions of work” and “safe and healthy working conditions.” Article 8 reasserts the “right to everyone to form trade unions” as a vehicle for achieving such conditions, and Article 12 calls for the “right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health … (including) [t]he improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene … (and) [t]he prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.”
The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment linked occupational and environmental health with human rights in the Stockholm Declaration, which seeks “[t]o defend and improve the human environment for present and future generations” and that doing so should “ … be pursued together … and in harmony with the established and fundamental goals of peace and worldwide economic and social development.” Twenty-six principles are presented in the Declaration to guide governments and the public toward “sustainable development,” with the goal of establishing a “healthy and productive life in harmony with nature” through efforts that include pollution prevention, environmental equity and justice, and protection of ecosystems and ecological processes.
The 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women makes similar linkages between occupational health and family well-being with regard to chemical exposures and pollution. Part III, Article 11 asserts the right to the protection of health and safety in the workplace, including safeguarding women's reproductive health, which can be threatened by many workplace chemical exposures. Article 10 calls for the right of access to information necessary to ensure the health and well-being of families. The parties to the Convention wrote that “… a new international order based on equity and justice will contribute significantly towards the promotion of equality between men and women.” The Convention presages the scientific evidence of the subsequent three decades, which demonstrates that exposure to toxic substances in the workplace—and a lack of hazard and exposure information about the those substances—increasingly puts reproductive health and human development at risk.
In 1988, the Adelaide Recommendations on Healthy Public Policy renewed the commitment to primary health care services established in the 1978 Declaration of Alma-Ata, USSR, and it takes the next step in declaring that “environmental management must protect human health from the direct and indirect adverse effects of biological, chemical, and physical factors, and should recognize that women and men are part of a complex ecosystem.” It links primary care with primary prevention and calls for global, regional, and local strategies to advance both.
The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro built on these previous declarations and declared that economic development must “… equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.” The Conference responded to the growing body of data that had emerged over the previous 20 years since Stockholm on the effects of multiple stressors on health and ecosystems, including, for example, industrial chemicals, poverty, ozone depletion, disenfranchisement of women, hazardous and solid wastes, vehicle exhaust, global warming, and climate change. The delegates reasserted that protection of health and ecosystems is human right, and that it is linked with economic security. The Rio Declaration calls for the eradication of poverty as a central goal of development and established the Precautionary Principle as a critical element of that process:
The precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measure to prevent environmental degradation.
The 1992 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), seeks to prevent harm in developing nations by placing conditions on the export and import of hazardous wastes. The illegal trafficking of hazardous waste across borders is a crime under the Basel Convention. Basel incorporates a primary prevention approach by recognizing the importance of
Minimizing the generation of hazardous waste at its source
Disposing of hazardous waste as close as possible to the source of its generation
Minimizing the international movement of hazardous waste
Developing low-waste technologies, recycling options, improved housekeeping and better management systems to reduce the generation of wastes
Basel's regulatory cornerstone is the requirement of Prior Informed Consent for the transboundary shipments of hazardous wastes between contracting parties, which sets forth rules on liability and compensation for damage. Basel has received widespread acceptance, with over 100 signatory nations and the EU; the United States, however, is not a signatory.
In 2006, over 100 governments, together with environmental, labor and health organizations, endorsed the UNEP Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which seeks to change the ways in which chemicals are produced and used in order to reduce their harmful effects on health and ecosystems. Like the human rights declarations, SAICM is not legally binding, yet it constitutes a global political consensus “that the environment worldwide continues to suffer from air, water, and land contamination that impairs the health and welfare of millions.” SAICM focuses primarily on developing nations and calls attention to the unique effects of chemical exposures on the health of “children, pregnant women, fertile populations, the elderly, the poor, workers, and other groups and susceptible environments.” SAICM points to the need for action on problems that include
A lack of capacity for managing chemicals in developing countries and countries with economies in transition
Dependency on pesticides in developing countries
Exposure of workers to harmful chemicals
Concerns about long-term health effects.