No child should be exposed to hazardous substances, says Human Rights Watch

child laborer
CC BY 2.0 Supriyo Bag

Children's rights are consistently violated in the context of environmental pollution, which is why Human Rights Watch has submitted a report with a loud and clear message to the United Nations. It's time to take action.

One of the worst environmental health disasters occurred in 2011, when 400 children died in Nigeria from lead poisoning. Children were exposed to lead in a number of ways – working in nearby gold mines and processing ore, both on site and at home, and coming into contact with lead dust-covered relatives coming home after a day at work.

The incident in Nigeria is just one example of many. Far too often, children become sick because of their proximity to hazardous substances, either working with them or living near them. The World Health Organization states that 1.7 million children under the age of five died in 2012 because they lived in an unhealthy environment.

This is unacceptable, which is why Human Rights Watch has submitted a detailed report to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Hazardous Substances and Wastes. The report, which is titled, “Danger, Keep Out! Children’s Exposure to Toxic Substances,” outlines multiple examples of children coming into contact with hazardous substances.

Human Rights Watch explains that most often the source of hazardous substances is economic activity, such as mining, manufacturing, farming, or other businesses. Children in Bangladesh are poisoned by tanneries when they bathe in ponds of water contaminated by untreated tannery effluent and work at tanning hides directly in pools of chemicals. In China, children suffer from lead poisoning from battery factories and smelters. Children in Kosovo refugee camps were also made terribly ill by lead contamination in water, thanks to a nearby industrial mine that the UN Interim Administration in Kosovo chose to ignore (and for which it is now being asked to pay compensation and apologize). In Africa, where much gold mining occurs, children get sick by coming into contact with mercury.

This happens even in the United States, where Human Rights Watch has documented the use of child farm laborers who come into contact with toxic fertilizers and pesticides. These have long-term negative effects on child development.

While a handful of governments have taken steps toward minimizing children’s exposure, it continues to be a serious problem. Human Rights Watch is calling on the UN to take more serious action, including regulating businesses, providing health worker training, ongoing medical assessments, and investigating and holding to account all violations to the child’s right to environmental health.

It’s a big project, and one that probably will not be resolved any time soon, but it is important. It also serves as an excellent reminder to consumers that it is crucial to research thoroughly the products we buy, and to do our due diligence when it comes to ensuring that consumer goods do not come at the cost of children’s health.

Related Content on