The case for environmental justice was heard again by the UN last week, when David Boyd, the special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council, drawing attention to the continued existence and creation of “sacrifice zones” across the world.
In the words of the report, these are “extremely contaminated areas where vulnerable and marginalized groups bear a disproportionate burden of the health, human rights and environmental consequences of exposure to pollution and hazardous substances.”
In late January this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), America’s environmental regulation body, announced long overdue measures attempting to provide environmental justice in regions severely affected by environmental racism. Throughout America, sacrifice zones are established in low income, predominantly non-white areas. In Louisiana’s notorious Cancer Alley named in the report, for example, , black people are disproportionately affected.
Cancer Alley got its name from the cancer-risks endured by its mostly low-income residents, who live amidst staggering levels of pollution. In the town of Reserve, located in the region, the EPA has reported the risk of cancer to be 50 times the national average.
Within America generally, Black, Latino and Indigenous communities have faced out-sized health risks from the effects of historically poorly maintained infrastructure, underfunding and unchecked industry pollution.
People of color are at a disproportionate risk of exposure to pollutants, with a study last year published in Science Advances finding that “Racial-ethnic minorities in the United States are exposed to disproportionately high levels of ambient fine particulate air pollution… the largest environmental cause of human mortality.”
According to the UN report presented by Boyd, the discriminatory effects of pollution and the industrial production of toxic substances are observed worldwide: “the burden of contamination falls disproportionately upon the shoulders of individuals, groups and communities that are already enduring poverty, discrimination and systemic marginalization.” The report pointed to examples of sacrifice zones in almost every continent, drawing attention to the global and pervasive nature of the phenomenon.
1/ We mapped the spread of toxic air pollution from industrial facilities across every neighborhood in the country. We found 1,000+ hotspots of cancer-causing air.
Now, we’re trying to get word out to the people who live in those places.
*All* of them.
We need your help:
— ProPublica (@propublica) November 12, 2021
The issue requires of an approach that accounts for the big picture, and global systemic issues
The issue of pollution, as demonstrated by the existence of sacrifice zones, intersects with a number of other issues related to the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Apart from race, this includes issues related to labour rights, access to education, access to health care and disparities between economic classes.
Workers, for example, “especially in low- and middle-income nations, are at risk because of elevated exposures on the job, poor working conditions, limited knowledge about chemical risks and lack of access to health care.”
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In fact, “over 750,000 workers die annually because of exposure to toxic substances on the job, including particulate matter, asbestos, arsenic and diesel exhaust.” The ILO also reports that, “Every year more than 1 billion workers are exposed to hazardous substances, including pollutants, dusts, vapours and fumes in their working environments.”
Like the pandemic, climate change has contributed to widening worldwide inequalities. The effect of the pollution is still more deadly than the pandemic, however, as the report points out, “pollution and toxic substances cause at least nine million premature deaths, double the number of deaths inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic during its first 18 months.”
Today @SREnvironment presents his environmental justice report on "sacrifice zones" = polluted areas where ppl suffer devastating ill-health, often near industries w/toxic emissions. #HRC49
➡️Immediate, ambitious action needed to detoxify people & planet! https://t.co/gvM0Q0OesV pic.twitter.com/4PJJgylQfz
— Juliane Kippenberg (@KippenbergJ) March 10, 2022
Pointing to research published by The Lancet, the report also highlights that “One in six deaths in the world involves diseases caused by pollution, three times more than deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined and 15 times more than from all wars, murders and other forms of violence.”
These pollution-related deaths are disproportionately shouldered by low and middle income countries, accounting for “nearly 92%of pollution-related deaths.”
There are two kinds of sacrifice zones
Sacrifice zones like Cancer Alley, which hosts over over 150 petrochemical plants, are created as the result of industrial planning. However, disaster prone areas across the globe, where residents experience disastrous damage to their homes and food supplies, as well as poor health and death, could also be considered sacrifice zones.
These areas are found mostly in the global South. As described in the report, “the climate crisis is creating a new category of sacrifice zones as a result of unabated greenhouse gas emissions, as communities have become, and are becoming, uninhabitable because of extreme weather events or slow-onset disasters, including drought and rising sea levels.”
#TheTimeIsNow to hear the voices of those who are most affected but have contributed least! George Kande (15) spoke at todays @UN_HRC Side-Event on "Non-toxic environments" by @SREnvironment. (1/2) #HRC49 #ChildRightsEnvironment pic.twitter.com/Dp764haIGM
— terre des hommes (@tdh_de) March 11, 2022
This point should be considered alongside data published by the Center for Global Development earlier this year, comparing the CO2 emissions of UK & US citizens with those from low- and middle-income countries. The data re-affirmed the outsized carbon emission of citizens in the UK and the US, which should be remembered when considering the fact that citizens of low and middle income countries bear the brunt of the costs of climate change.
The UN Human Rights Council, acknowledging this, established in October 2021 that “having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Boyd drew attention to the way in which welding “the international environmental agreements together with human rights law, human rights law brings into the equation institutions, processes, accountability.”
It is clear that the existence of sacrifice zones across the globe requires an intersectional approach, using legal frameworks designed to protect the rights of systematically marginalised communities, and to protect workers from unsafe working conditions. In order to address the inequalities and hardships exacerbated by discriminatory state and industrial practices, human rights law is an essential tool.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: “A mound of oil drums near the Baton Rouge ExxonMobil Refinery along the Mississippi River in December 1972.”- Wikipedia Featured Photo Credit: National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.