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Exposure to toxic substances raises the risks of premature death
by David Boyd
Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
Mar. 2022
The toxification of planet Earth is intensifying - pollution and toxic substances cause at least 9 million premature deaths a year.
As Earth becomes increasingly poisoned by toxic substances and pollution, a UN human rights expert is calling for urgent and ambitious action to curb exposures to the deadly substances, prevent pollution and rehabilitate contaminated sites.
David Boyd, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said in a report presented to the Human Rights Council today that each year pollution and toxic substances cause at least 9 million premature deaths.
“They also raise the risks of cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, adverse effects on the immune, endocrine and reproductive systems, birth defects and lifelong negative impacts on neurological development,” he said.
“Yet, hundreds of millions of tons of toxic substances continue to be released into air, water and soil annually. Pollution and toxic substances affect the enjoyment of many human rights, especially the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, but also the rights to life, health, water, food, housing, and an adequate standard of living.”
Boyd said the burden of contamination falls disproportionately on the shoulders of individuals and communities already enduring poverty, discrimination and systemic marginalization.
“The disturbing phenomenon of being more heavily affected by pollution is called environmental injustice,” he said. “Poor and marginalized communities are less likely to have access to environmental information, to participate in environmental decision-making or to have access to justice and effective remedies when their rights are jeopardized or violated.
“It is deeply distressing to see that clusters of the most heavily polluting and hazardous facilities, such as open-pit mines, smelters, petroleum refineries, chemical plants and garbage dumps tend to be located near these disadvantaged communities.”
Boyd said some areas have even been described as “sacrifice zones”, where communities suffer from extreme exposure to pollution and toxic substances. The Special Rapporteur’s report highlights more than 60 sacrifice zones from all regions of the world, communities whose inhabitants are often exploited, traumatized and stigmatized.
“While it is encouraging that there are good practices in both preventing future environmental injustices and remediating some sacrifice zones, many disturbing situations and related human rights violations remain unaddressed,” he said.
“Achieving a non-toxic environment is a human rights obligation, not an option. The recent recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the Human Rights Council should mark a turning point in society’s approach to pollution and toxic substances.
“The creation of sacrifice zones must be prevented and urgent action must be taken to prevent pollution, remediate contaminated sites, and provide medical treatment in such zones,” Boyd said.
The UN expert urged States and businesses to vigorously pursue zero pollution and the elimination of toxic substances. Prevention, precaution and non-discrimination must be the paramount principles in environmental policymaking, he added.
“A human rights-based approach to preventing exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals could save millions of lives, improve the quality of life for billions of people and save trillions of dollars,” he said.
May 2022
Pollution and health - The Lancet Planetary Health
The Lancet Commission on pollution and health reported that pollution was responsible for 9 million premature deaths in 2015, making it the world's largest environmental risk factor for disease and premature death. We have now updated this estimate using data from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2019. We find that pollution remains responsible for approximately 9 million deaths per year, corresponding to one in six deaths worldwide.
Reductions have occurred in the number of deaths attributable to the types of pollution associated with extreme poverty. However, these reductions in deaths from household air pollution and water pollution are offset by increased deaths attributable to ambient air pollution and toxic chemical pollution (ie, lead). Deaths from these modern pollution risk factors, which are the unintended consequence of industrialisation and urbanisation, have risen by 7% since 2015 and by over 66% since 2000.
Despite ongoing efforts by UN agencies, committed groups, committed individuals, and some national governments (mostly in high-income countries), little real progress against pollution can be identified overall, particularly in the low-income and middle-income countries, where pollution is most severe.
Prof Philip Landrigan, at Boston College in the US and a lead author of the analysis, said: “Pollution is still the largest existential threat to human and planetary health. Preventing pollution can also slow climate change – achieving a double benefit for planetary health – and our report calls for a massive, rapid transition away from all fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.”
Awareness of pollution was key, said Richard Fuller, at the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) in Switzerland, another lead author. He said action plans have been presented to 11 national governments to date: “Ministers are just gobsmacked at how big an impact pollution is having in their country.” Measuring pollution and making it public also drives change, he said: “It switches on communities to want to do something and yell and scream at their politicians. Everything can roll from that.”
Urgent attention is needed to control pollution and prevent pollution-related disease, with an emphasis on air pollution and lead poisoning, and a stronger focus on hazardous chemical pollution. Pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss are closely linked. Successful control of these conjoined threats requires a globally supported, formal science–policy interface to inform intervention, influence research, and guide funding.
Pollution has typically been viewed as a local issue to be addressed through subnational and national regulation or, occasionally, using regional policy in higher-income countries. Now, however, it is increasingly clear that pollution is a planetary threat, and that its drivers, its dispersion, and its effects on health transcend local boundaries and demand a global response.
Global action on all major modern pollutants is needed. Global efforts can synergise with other global environmental policy programmes, especially as a large-scale, rapid transition away from all fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy is an effective strategy for preventing pollution while also slowing down climate change, and thus achieves a double benefit for planetary health.


World mourns anti-apartheid crusader Archbishop Desmond Tutu
by Mail & Guardian, Amnesty, ICC, agencies
South Africa
26 Dec. 2022
Dubbed "the moral compass" of South Africa, tributes have poured in from across the globe on the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and veteran of South Africa's struggle against white minority rule, has died at the age of 90.
In 1984 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent opposition to apartheid.
When Neslon Mandela became president after South Africa’s first free elections in 1994, Tutu coined the term “Rainbow Nation” to describe his homeland and then led the truth and reconciliation commission, which revealed the horrors of apartheid.
The outspoken Archbishop Tutu was considered the nation's conscience by both black and white, an enduring testament to his faith and spirit of reconciliation in a divided nation.
"The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa," President Cyril Ramaphosa said.
“From the pavements of resistance in South Africa to the pulpits of the world’s great cathedrals and places of worship, and the prestigious setting of the Nobel peace prize ceremony, the Arch distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights.”
Archbishop Tutu preached against the tyranny of the white minority and even after its end, he never wavered in his fight for a fairer South Africa. On occassions he challenged his allies at the ruling African National Congress party over their failures to address the poverty and inequalities that they promised to eradicate.
Dubbed "the moral compass of the nation", his courage in defending social justice, even at great cost to himself, always shone through - and not just during apartheid.
Just five feet five inches tall and with an infectious laugh, he helped rouse grassroots campaigns around the world that fought for an end to apartheid through economic and cultural boycotts.
Talking and travelling tirelessly throughout the 1980s, Archbishop Tutu became the face of the anti-apartheid movement abroad while many of the leaders of the rebel ANC, such as Nelson Mandela, were behind bars.
Tributes poured in from around the world.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres called Tutu "a towering global figure for peace and an inspiration to generations across the world".
"During the darkest days of apartheid, he was a shining beacon for social justice, freedom and non-violent resistance," Guterres said in a statement.
The Vatican said in a statement that Pope Francis was saddened and offered "heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones".
"Mindful of his service to the gospel through the promotion of racial equality and reconciliation in his native South Africa, his holiness commends his soul to the loving mercy of almighty God."
The archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, said: “Desmond Tutu’s legacy is moral strength, moral courage and clarity. He felt with the people. In public and alone, he cried because he felt people’s pain. And he laughed – no, not just laughed, he cackled with delight when he shared their joy.”
The Nelson Mandela Foundation said: “His contributions to struggles against injustice, locally and globally, are matched only by the depth of his thinking about the making of liberatory futures for human societies. He was an extraordinary human being. A thinker. A leader. A shepherd.”
Former US president Barack Obama, the nation's first Black leader, called Tutu "a mentor, a friend, and a moral compass" who could "find humanity in his adversaries".. "A universal spirit, Archbishop Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere," he said.
US President Joe Biden said he was "heartbroken" to learn of the archbishop's death. "Desmond Tutu followed his spiritual calling to create a better, freer, and more equal world," Biden and First Lady Jill Biden said in a statement that praised Tutu's "courage and moral clarity".
Friends remembered Tutu as a man of deep faith whose charm, warmth and intelligence few could resist, and who was happiest when active on behalf of others.
The World Council of Churches said: “His contagious sense of humour and laughter has helped to resolve many critical situations in South Africa’s political and church life. He was able to break almost any deadlock. He shared with us the laughter and grace of God many a time.”
The Dalai Lama said: “The friendship and the spiritual bond between us was something we cherished. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was entirely dedicated to serving his brothers and sisters for the greater common good.”
Norway’s minister of foreign affairs, Anniken Huitfeldt, said: “Desmond Tutu combined the struggle against apartheid with important contributions to reconciliation between people. He contributed to a better world with his work against racial segregation policy, and in his later days he became a leading figure in the fight for gay rights.”
Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, said: “I’m saddened to learn of the death of global sage, human rights leader, and powerful pilgrim on Earth … we are better because he was here.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a long-time friend of former South African President Nelson Mandela, and the pair lived for a time on the same street in the South African township of Soweto, making Vilakazi Street the only one in the world to host two Nobel Peace Prize winners.
"His most characteristic quality is his readiness to take unpopular positions without fear," Mr Mandela once said of Archbishop Tutu. "Such independence of mind is vital to a thriving democracy.. “Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless,” he added.
Despite suffering from prostate cancer in his latter years, Desmond Tutu remained engaged in world affairs and determined to use his moral prestige to make a difference. In 2015, he launched a petition urging global leaders to create a world run on renewable energies within 35 years, which was backed by more than 300,000 people globally. It described climate change as “one of the greatest moral challenges of our time”.
Tutu took aim at exploiters and autocrats anywhere he found them. Justly lauded as an icon of nonviolent activism, he enraged those who prefer less pacific means to effect change or hold on to power. Robert Mugabe, the former dictatorial leader of Zimbabwe, resorted to insults to counter Tutu’s cutting words, calling their author “an angry, evil and embittered little bishop”.
Such sentiments did not bother the smiling, chuckling, charismatic cleric – though Tutu confessed to one interviewer that he “loved to be loved”. Even in the Anglican church, an institution to which he dedicated much of his life, Tutu’s liberal understanding of faith riled many. No one doubted his faith or commitment to the institution but not every cleric enjoyed hearing about a God who had a “soft spot for sinners” and fewer still on a continent riven by visceral homophobia appreciated his vocal, consistent support for LGBT rights.
“I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this,” he said in 2013. “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, ‘Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place.’” He also supported the right to assisted death, another controversial position within the church. Other interventions argued for urgent action against climate change and a change in US policy on Israel.
Right to the end Tutu was “on the side of the angels”, as one resident of a township not far from where the archbishop lived and died said on Sunday.
In one of his last public appearances, aged 89, he received a Covid vaccine, an important statement in a country that has lost up to 250,000 lives to the pandemic out of a population of 59m, according to excess mortality figures, and suffers from widespread vaccine hesitancy.
Archbishop Tutu led numerous marches and campaigns to end apartheid from St George's front steps, which became known as the "People's Cathedral" and a powerful symbol of democracy.
Members of all communities have stopped by St George’s cathedral since the news of Tutu’s death broke, many laying flowers under a portrait of the cleric fixed to a wall of remembrance alongside a South African flag, or signing a book of condolence.
Among them was Miriam Mokwadi, a 67-year-old retired nurse, who said the Nobel laureate “was a hero to us, he fought for us”.. “We are liberated due to him. If it was not for him, probably we would have been lost as a country. He was just good,” said Mokwadi, clutching the hand of her granddaughter.
Amnesty International pays tribute to Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu
Amnesty International paid tribute today to one of the world’s dedicated human rights champions, Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu. Tutu passed away on 26 December 2021 at the age of 90.
The death of Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu leaves a big void in the struggle for human rights and freedom around the world. He dedicated his entire life to the fight to create a world where people could be free to claim and exercise their freedoms, without being prejudiced or persecuted for who they are.
He will be remembered for standing up for the oppressed people of South Africa during the apartheid government’s segregation and oppression of black people, denying them basic human rights such as freedom of association, movement and assembly.
"The world has lost a dedicated human rights champion. Archbishop Desmond Tutu refused to sit and watch injustice meted out against the people of South Africa by the apartheid government at the time when it was costly to stand up against the regime. He also stood up for the oppressed people elsewhere around the world, ensuring that he spoke out for their freedom". - Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been a fervent supporter of Amnesty International’s human rights work. He supported the organization’s Arms Trade Treaty campaign, an international treaty that sets out robust global rules to stop the flow of weapons, munitions and related items to countries when it is known they would be used to commit or facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious human rights violations.
He also worked with the organization to campaign to free political prisoners in Burma in August 2012, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Archbishop Desmond Tutu devoted his entire life to ensuring justice for all. He wanted to see a world where all co-existed in peace and harmony, without any prejudice. He is a true example of a selfless human rights fighter”.
He also worked with Amnesty International to champion the rights of LGBTI people. He also supported the organization’s campaign against death penalty, putting pressure on countries still using it as punishment for crime to bring an end to the cruel and inhuman practice.
“Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu leaves a remarkable human rights legacy. It is for us to continue where he left off, to demand better from our governments and to create human rights respecting societies.”
26 Dec. 2021
President Cyril Ramaphosa expresses, on behalf of all South Africans, his profound sadness at the passing today, Sunday 26 December 2021, of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu:
President Ramaphosa said: “The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa.
“Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead.
“A man of extraordinary intellect, integrity and invincibility against the forces of apartheid, he was also tender and vulnerable in his compassion for those who had suffered oppression, injustice and violence under apartheid, and oppressed and downtrodden people around the world.
“As Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he articulated the universal outrage at the ravages of apartheid and touchingly and profoundly demonstrated the depth of meaning of ubuntu, reconciliation and forgiveness.
“He placed his extensive academic achievements at the service of our struggle and at the service of the cause for social and economic justice the world over.
“From the pavements of resistance in South Africa to the pulpits of the world’s great cathedrals and places of worship, and the prestigious setting of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Arch distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights.
“In his richly inspiring yet challenging life, Desmond Tutu overcame tuberculosis, the brutality of the apartheid security forces and the intransigence of successive apartheid regimes. Neither Casspirs, teargas nor security agents could intimidate him or deter him from his steadfast belief in our liberation.
“He remained true to his convictions during our democratic dispensation and maintained his vigour and vigilance as he held leadership and the burgeoning institutions of our democracy to account in his inimitable, inescapable and always fortifying way.
“We share this moment of deep loss with Mam Leah Tutu, the Archbishop’s soulmate and source of strength and insight, who has made a monumental contribution in her own right to our freedom and to the development of our democracy.
“We pray that Archbishop Tutu’s soul will rest in peace but that his spirit will stand sentry over the future of our nation.”


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