Human Rights Implicated by Toxic Chemicals 

Human rights are universal and inalienable. All people everywhere in the world are entitled to them. Any person who has such rights cannot voluntarily give them up. Nor can others take them away from him or her.

Hazardous substances and wastes, including toxic chemicals, implicate a broad range of civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights. Under international human rights law, States have a duty to protect human rights and businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, including those implicated by hazardous substances and waste.

Certain key rights and principles that States must protect, respect and fulfill in the context of the management of hazardous substances and wastes are described in further detail below.


Principles of Non-Discrimination & Equality

All individuals are equal as human beings and by virtue of the inherent dignity of each human person. All human beings are entitled to their human rights without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, ethnicity, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, disability, property, birth or other status as explained by the human rights treaty bodies.


Right to Information

People have a right to know whether they are or may be exposed to hazardous substances, including toxic chemicals. The right to information is essential in order to give effect to other rights, such as due process, guarantees to a fair trial and the right to an effective remedy. To realize the right to information, information about the potential impacts of substances must be available, accessible, functional and non-discriminatory. More information on hazardous substances and the right to information is available here.


Right to Participation

Every person and all peoples are entitled to active, free and meaningful participation (ICCPR Art. 25).  According to the UN Human Rights Committee, whatever form of constitution or government is in force, international human rights law requires States to adopt such legislative and other measures as may be necessary to ensure that citizens have an effective opportunity to enjoy the rights it protects (General Comment No. 25).


Right to an Effective Remedy

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy for the violation of human rights (ICCPR Article 2). Where States fail to protect human rights and businesses fail to respect human rights, victims are entitled to an effective remedy.  According to the UN Human Rights Committee, “remedies should be appropriately adapted so as to take account of the special vulnerability of certain categories of person, including in particular children.” (General Comment No. 31).


Right to Life

Under international human rights law, no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life (ICCPR, Art. 6). In addition, the Convention on the Rights of the Child also recognizes that “every child has the inherent right to life” and that the survival and development of the child is ensured to the “maximum extent possible” (CRC Art. 6). Both aspects of the human environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights the right to life itself.


Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health

The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition. The right to the highest attainable standard of health is containing in several international human rights treaties, including both physical and mental health, and the constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO).


Right to Food

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food (UDHR, Art. 25; and ICESCR, Art. 11). According the UN Human Rights Committee, the right to food “shall not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive sense which equates it with a minimum package of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients.” (General Comment 12).  The Committee further states that the right to food implies:  The availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture; [and] The accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights. (General Comment 12)


Right to Water

According to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), “[t]he human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” (General Comment 15).  The right to water is explicitly or implicitly found in numerous international human rights treaties and declaration, including: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Art. 11); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Article 14, paragraph 2); and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 24).  According CESCR, the right to water is “inextricably related to” the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the right to adequate housing, and the right to food, and “should also be seen in conjunction with other rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights, foremost amongst them the right to life and human dignity.” (General Comment 15).


Right to Adequate Housing

Everyone has the right to adequate housing and to the continuous improvement of living conditions (ICESCR, Art. 12).  Indoor air pollution, dust and other sources of toxic contamination in the indoor environment are linked to a number of adverse health impacts (CESCR General Comment No. 4), directly implicating the right to adequate housing. For example, the use of lead in paint has left many living in homes contaminated with lead, placing health of children and adults at risk. According to WHO, lead paint causes some 600,000 new cases of intellectual disabilities in children every year. Studies in certain cities have shown that children living in poor and/or minority communities are more likely to have lead poisoning from lead in paint.


Right to a Healthy Environment

A healthy environment is a necessary condition for the realization of a number of human rights. People and peoples have the “fundamental right to … an environment of a quality that permits a life in dignity and well being” (Declaration of the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, Art. 1 (1972)). More than 100 constitutions in the world guarantee a right to a clean and healthy environment, impose a duty on the state to prevent environmental harm, or mention the protection of the environment or natural resources.