What is the issue?

We are exposed to toxic substances daily through our food, drinking water, the air, and the everyday products we use, ranging from toys to furniture to transport. It may come as a surprise that only 0.03 percent of industrial chemicals are regulated globally, and that tens of thousands of substances have been presumed safe with little to no evidence. While all humans are vulnerable to the effects of exposure to toxics, children are the worst affected population group because of their smaller bodies, rapid growth and particular behavioural habits.

What is the problem?

Research increasingly links childhood exposure to certain toxic chemicals to a range of diseases that manifest later in life, such as cancer, diabetes, and impaired brain function. Nowadays, exposure to toxics starts before birth through the mother’s own exposure, leading to what researchers describe as “pre-polluted” children. Meanwhile paediatricians refer to the present state of the impact of pollution and contamination on children’s health as a “silent pandemic” because it is all around us yet we are unaware of its impact.

From a human rights perspective, childhood exposure to toxics affects a wide range of children’s rights, from their right to health and a healthy environment, to the right to education and play, and, in cases of death, to the right to life and survival.

What is the solution?

States have a legal obligation to protect their citizens from exposure to toxics. With regard to children, that obligation entitles children to live, learn and grow in a physical environment that facilitates health, play, and education, and is free from undue risk. Business also bear legal responsibilities when their activities - which are to blame for most childhood exposures - violate human rights.

When violations do occur, being able to make a complaint and seek redress through the necessary institutions is crucial. For this, children and their advocates must be provided with accessible and effective avenues to hold polluters to account before the law, ensure victims are medically rehabilitated and paid adequate compensation, and that reoccurrence is prevented.