Most Americans are taught in grade school about the Declaration of Independence and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But even those elitist Americans with a college education don't learn anything about the concept of a human right to a healthy environment. So it is not surprising when news headlines completely overlook an international environmental treaty that moves us closer to the notion of a right to environmental health.
Earlier this month, the first-ever legally binding global treaty to protect people and the environment from mercury pollution made history when 140 nations reached agreement after four years of talks. The Minamata Convention on mercury pollution was hailed by Human Rights Watch, which has been battling to protect children in small scale gold mining communities from inadequate child labor protections and the severe health threats from mercury pollution related to mining.
Most Americans have also never heard of the Minamata mercury disaster. In the 1950s, in the town of Minamata, Japan, the Chisso Corporation began dumping large amounts of mercury into Minamata Bay and Minamata River. As a fishing and fish-eating community, when mercury moved up the food chain, the toxic chemical affected virtually everyone, killing 700 people, crippling as many as 9,000 others, and poisoning up to 50,000 who lived within 35 miles of the bay. Children born with mercury pollution suffered for decades more.
Like Monsanto's years of dumping PCBs in Anniston, Ala., or DuPont's dumping of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, also known as C8) in Wood County, W. Va., company documents show that Chisso knew about the health effects from its mercury dumping, yet continued the practice for years as thousands of people suffered. Today, fracking companies are still allowed to use mass amounts of undisclosed toxic chemicals that can cause serious air and water pollution.
When I founded the Center for Environmental Health in 1996, one of our first efforts successfully helped close California's last medical waste incinerator, a polluting plant in a low-income community just a stone's throw from San Francisco Bay. At the time, medical waste incineration was known as the fourth leading source of mercury pollution. Community-based groups pointed to the environmental injustice of incinerators and other polluting industries that are disproportionately sited in their neighborhoods. We joined with the community-based groups working to shut the incinerator in support of environmental justice and because we believe that everyone has the human right to an environment free from chemical health threats.
To some, calling environmental health a human right seems radical. But as Rachel Carson said in Silent Spring, "If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons... it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem." Today, several state constitutions contain provisions on the right to a healthy environment, and their courts have used these provisions to establish the states' right to act to prevent pollution in the face of serious health or environmental threats. Of 193 UN member nations, 177 today recognize the right to an "environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being... " The U.S. remains one of the few holdouts unwilling to recognize this fundamental human right.
Fernando Lugris of Uruguay, the chair of the Minamata Convention on mercury pollution, noted on the adoption of the treaty that "[W]e have... opened a new chapter towards a sustainable future. This has been done in the name of vulnerable populations everywhere and represents an opportunity for a healthier and more sustainable century for all peoples." Let's take this as one hopeful step towards environmental justice and the right to a healthy environment for all.