At least 155 states recognize their citizens have the right to live in a healthy environment, either through national legislation or international accords, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Despite those protections, the World Health Organization estimates that 23 per cent of all deaths are linked to “environmental risks” like air pollution, water contamination and chemical exposure.
Statistics like that are why the United Nations Human Rights Council recently passed a resolution reaffirming states’ obligations to protect human rights, including by taking stronger actions on environmental challenges.
Here are some of the ways that a compromised planet is now compromising the human right to health.
1. The destruction of wild spaces facilitates the emergence of zoonotic diseases.
The alteration of land to create space for homes, farms and industries has put humans in increasing contact with wildlife and has created opportunities for pathogens to spill over from wild animals to people.
An estimated 60 per cent of human infections are of animal origin. And there are plenty of other viruses poised to jump from animals to humans. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “as many as 1.7 million unidentified viruses of the type known to infect people are believed to still exist in mammals and waterfowl. Any one of these could be the next ‘Disease X’ – potentially even more disruptive and lethal than COVID-19.”
2. Air pollution reduces quality of health and lowers life expectancy.
Across the globe, nine in 10 people are breathing unclean air, harming their health and shortening their life span. Every year, about 7 million people die from diseases and infections related to air pollution, more than five times the number of people who perish in road traffic collisions.
Exposure to pollutants can also affect the brain, causing developmental delays, behavioural problems and even lower IQs in children. In older people, pollutants are associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
3. Biodiversity loss compromises the nutritional value of food.
In the last 50 years alone, human diets have become 37 per cent more similar, with just 12 crops and five animal species providing 75 per cent of the world’s energy intake. Today, nearly one in three people suffer from some form of malnutrition and much of the world’s population is affected by diet-related diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
4. Biodiversity loss also reduces the scope and efficacy of medicines.
Natural products comprise a large portion of existing pharmaceuticals and have been particularly important in the area of cancer therapy. But estimates suggest that 15,000 medicinal plant species are at risk of extinction and that the Earth loses at least one potential major drug every two years.
5. Pollution is threatening billions worldwide.
Many health issues spring from pollution and the idea that waste can be thrown “away” when, in fact, much of it remains in ecosystems, affecting both environmental and human health.
Water contaminated by waste, untreated sewage, agricultural runoff and industrial discharge puts 1.8 billion people at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. Methylmercury – a substance found in everyday products that contaminate fish – can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems when consumed by humans. And a growing body of evidence suggests that there is a cause for concern about the impact of microplastics on marine life and the food web.
As well, every year, 25 million people suffer from acute pesticide poisoning. And glyphosate – the world’s most widely-used herbicide– is associated with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers.
Even medicines can have a negative impact as they infiltrate ecosystems. A 2017 UNEP report found that antibiotics have become less effective as medicine because of their widespread use in promoting livestock growth. About 700,000 people die of resistant infections every year.
6. Climate change introduces additional risks to health and safety.
The last decade was the hottest in human history and we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, with wildfires, floods and hurricanes becoming regular events that threaten lives, livelihoods and food security. Climate change also affects the survival of microbes, facilitating the spread of viruses. According to an article published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people.”
The 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council recently passed a resolution calling on states to conserve, protect and restore ecosystems, describing them as crucial to human health and wellbeing. Some 69 states committed to engaging in a dialogue to recognize the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
During the council session, 15 UN entities, including the United Nations Environment Programme, delivered a joint statement expressing their support for the global recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
The resolution came just ahead of the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, a global effort to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide.
Hero image © UNEP / 13 Apr 2021. Story cross-posted from UNEP