The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has identified the most polluted places on earth. In his annual report to the UN Human Rights Council, David Boyd describes these places as Sacrifice Zones, a term originally used for areas made uninhabitable by nuclear weapons tests.
He writes: “Today, a sacrifice zone can be understood to be a place where residents suffer devastating physical and mental health consequences and human rights violations as a result of living in pollution hotspots and heavily contaminated areas. 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.”
“The continued existence of sacrifice zones is a stain upon the collective conscience of humanity. Often created through the collusion of Governments and businesses, sacrifice zones are the diametric opposite of sustainable development, harming the interests of present and future generations. The people who inhabit sacrifice zones are exploited, traumatized and stigmatized. They are treated as disposable, their voices ignored, their presence excluded from decision-making processes and their dignity and human rights trampled upon.”
Every year, “pollution and toxic substances cause at least 9 million premature deaths, double the number of deaths inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic during its first 18 months. 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.”
The burden of contamination falls disproportionately on the shoulders of individuals and communities already enduring poverty, discrimination and systemic marginalization. “Women, children, minorities, migrants, Indigenous peoples, older persons and persons with disabilities are potentially vulnerable…. Workers, 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. Millions of children are employed in potentially hazardous sectors including agriculture, mining and tanning. Low income housing may contain asbestos, lead, formaldehyde and other toxic substances.”
The full text of the Special Rapporteur’s report to the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council can be downloaded here. The following is the section of his report that highlights sacrifice zones around the world.
The most heavily polluting and hazardous facilities, including open-pit mines, smelters, petroleum refineries, chemical plants, coal-fired power stations, oil- and gas fields, steel plants, garbage dumps and hazardous waste incinerators, as well as clusters of these facilities, tend to be located in close proximity to poor and marginalized communities. Health, quality of life and a wide range of human rights are compromised, ostensibly for “growth,” “progress” or “development” but in reality to serve private interests. Shareholders in polluting companies benefit from higher profits, while consumers benefit through lower-cost energy and goods. Prolonging the jobs of workers in polluting industries is used as a form of economic blackmail to delay the transition to a sustainable future, while the potential of green jobs is unjustifiably discounted.
The continued existence of sacrifice zones is a stain upon the collective conscience of humanity. Often created through the collusion of Governments and businesses, sacrifice zones are the diametric opposite of sustainable development, harming the interests of present and future generations. The people who inhabit sacrifice zones are exploited, traumatized and stigmatized. They are treated as disposable, their voices ignored, their presence excluded from decision-making processes and their dignity and human rights trampled upon. Sacrifice zones exist in States rich and poor, North and South, as described in the examples below. Descriptions of additional sacrifice zones are contained in Annex I.
In Kabwe, Zambia, 95 per cent of children suffer from elevated blood lead levels caused by lead mining and smelting. Experts described the situation as a severe environmental health crisis, and Kabwe was named as one of the most polluted places on Earth. Exposure to lead during childhood impairs neurological development, causing lifelong cognitive deficits. Extremely high levels of exposure, such as those seen in Kabwe, can cause blindness, paralysis and death.
The people of the Niger Delta in Nigeria have lived with oil pollution and gas flaring for decades, resulting in extensive physical and mental health problems caused by contaminated air, water and food. Adverse health effects of exposure to oil pollution include abnormalities in blood, liver, kidney, respiratory and brain functions, as well as asthma attacks, headaches, diarrhoea, dizziness, abdominal pain and back pain. Average life expectancy for residents of the Niger Delta is only 40 years, compared to 55 years for Nigeria as a whole.
In 2006, thousands of people in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, were harmed and 15 killed by the illegal dumping of toxic waste containing high levels of hydrogen sulfide offloaded from the vessel Probo Koala.
A review of the hospital records of more than 10,000 patients determined that the main impacts included respiratory problems (such as coughs and chest pains) and digestive symptoms (such as abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting).
Asia and the Pacific
Astronomical levels of air pollution have harmed the health of billions of people in Asia. The majority of the world’s most polluted cities are in China and India. In New Delhi, thick smog provoked a weeks-long closure of all schools in November 2021, with levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) 20 times higher than the maximum daily limit recommended by WHO.
China extracts the majority of the world’s rare earth minerals, elements used in products including electric vehicles, wind turbines and mobile phones. These minerals are mined in Bayan Obo and processed in Baotou, a nearby city. Air quality is very poor, and toxic emissions cause a substantial lifetime risk of lung cancer for local residents, especially children.
Residents have elevated levels of rare earth minerals (lanthanum, cerium and neodymium) in their blood, urine and hair. Elevated concentrations of heavy metals in dust and soil threaten people’s health.
People in the Marshall Islands, in Kazakhstan, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and in Fukushima, Japan, continue to suffer the adverse effects of radiation from nuclear tests and disasters at nuclear reactors. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested more than 60 nuclear weapons on or near Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the Marshall Islands, resulting in elevated levels of cancer, birth defects and psychological trauma that continue to this day. Marshallese women and girls suffer disproportionately from thyroid and other cancers and from reproductive health problems. The former Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear testing explosions in the former Semipalatinsk region (now Semey, Kazakhstan). People in the region, living in poverty and not informed about the tests, were exposed to high levels of radiation, leading to large numbers of birth defects, elevated rates of cancer and extensive psychological trauma.
Bor, Serbia, is one of the most polluted European cities, largely because of a huge copper mining and smelting complex that emits massive amounts of sulfur dioxide, particulates, arsenic, lead, zinc and mercury. UNEP described a devastating legacy of environmental problems, with sulfur dioxide concentrations occasionally exceeding the measuring range of monitoring equipment. The Borska Reka River is so contaminated with heavy metals that experts described it as without any trace of life. Metallurgical workers have high levels of arsenic in their hair and urine, with nearly 80 per cent suffering from an average of two chronic diseases.
Norilsk is among the most polluted cities in the Russian Federation, suffering very high levels of air pollution, acid rain, water pollution and soil contamination. The main source of pollution is the mining and smelting company Norilsk Nickel, which caused a catastrophic diesel spill in 2020 affecting the Pyasina River. Very high levels of heavy metals have been found in fish, moss, soil and snow in the region. The most adversely affected communities are Indigenous peoples from Taymyr, who face high rates of respiratory diseases, cancer, weakened immune system, premature births, reproductive failure, increased childhood morbidity and life expectancy 10 years below the national average.
Although the Pata Rât landfill in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, closed in 2015, thousands of marginalized Roma people still live in the area, regarded as one of the worst waste dumps in Europe. They lack access to safe drinking water, sanitation or decent housing, leading researchers to describe Pata Rât as a desolate scenario of dehumanization. People are exposed to arsenic, benzene, cadmium, chromium, creosote, dioxins, hexane, hydrogen sulfide, lead, mercury, styrene and zinc. Residents report suffering from infections of the ears, eyes and skin, asthma, bronchitis, high blood pressure, cancer, and heart, liver and stomach ailments.
Latin America and the Caribbean
Quintero-Puchuncaví, the most notorious sacrifice zone in Chile, is home to the Ventanas industrial complex, comprising more than 15 industrial businesses (oil refineries, petrochemical facilities, coal-fired power plants, gas terminals and a copper smelter). In 2018, a major air pollution incident in Quintero-Puchuncaví made hundreds of schoolchildren ill. In the universal periodic review process, the United Nations country team recommended that Chile investigate the negative effects on the inhabitants of sacrifice zones, accelerate the implementation of remediation programmes and develop environmental quality standards in accordance with WHO international standards. The Supreme Court of Chile concluded that the egregious air pollution in Quintero-Puchuncaví violated the right to a pollution-free environment and ordered the Government to take steps to address the problem.
In La Oroya, Peru, generations of children have been poisoned by a huge lead smelter. A shocking 99 per cent of children have levels of lead in their blood that exceed acceptable limits. Despite interventions by the Constitutional Court of Peru and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, levels of contamination in La Oroya remain hazardous. Also located in Peru, in Cerro de Pasco, is a massive open-pit mine adjacent to an impoverished community exposed to elevated levels of heavy metals. In 2018, the Government of Peru declared a state of emergency in Cerro de Pasco because of the pollution, but children in the region continue to suffer adverse health effects.
Water and soil in Guadeloupe and Martinique, France, are contaminated by unsafe levels of the pesticide chlordecone. Although the manufacturing and use of this pesticide was banned in the 1970s in the United States, it continued to be used in the West Indies into the 1990s. Residents are still exposed to chlordecone through drinking water and the food that they grow because of the pesticide’s persistence in the environment. Ninety per cent of people living in Guadeloupe and Martinique have been found to have chlordecone in their blood, raising their risk of cancer.
Garbage dumps in numerous Caribbean nations are regularly set on fire, despite the presence of plastics, used tyres and other items that generate extremely hazardous chemicals when burned. This practice creates massive, lingering clouds of toxic smoke that envelope neighbouring residents and jeopardize their health. Examples include the landfills at Parkietenbos in Aruba, (Netherlands), Riverton (Jamaica) and Truitier (Haiti). A major fire at the Riverton dump in Jamaica in 2015 led to 50 schools being closed and hundreds of persons hospitalized.
Western Europe and North America
One of the most notorious pollution hotspots in Canada – “Chemical Valley”, in Sarnia, Ontario – has disturbing health effects on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. There are more than 40 large petrochemical, polymer, oil-refining and chemical facilities in close proximity to Aamjiwnaang, as well as a coal-fired power plant. This Indigenous community endures some of the worst air quality in Canada. Physical and psychological health problems are common, including high rates of miscarriages, childhood asthma, and cancer.
In the United States, cancer rates are far higher than the national average in predominantly Black communities such as Mossville, St. Gabriel, St. James Parish and St. John the Baptist Parish, located in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley”, which is home to more than 150 refineries and petrochemical plants, including the world’s largest producer of Styrofoam. Large polluting industrial facilities in the United States are disproportionately located in communities with the highest percentages of persons of African descent, the lowest household incomes and the highest proportion of residents who did not graduate from high school. A leading scholar wrote that, “[e]nabled by state zoning, a wave of chemical plants dropped on African American communities like a bomb”.
Cancer Alley contains 7 of the 10 United States census tracts with the highest risk of cancer from air pollution. In 2020, air concentrations of cancer-causing chloroprene in St. John the Baptist Parish were 8,000 times higher than the acceptable level established by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
The Ilva steel plant in Taranto, Italy, has compromised people’s health and violated human rights for decades by discharging vast volumes of toxic air pollution. Nearby residents suffer from elevated levels of respiratory illnesses, heart disease, cancer, debilitating neurological ailments and premature mortality. Clean-up and remediation activities that were supposed to commence in 2012 have been delayed to 2023, with the Government introducing special legislative decrees allowing the plant to continue operating. In 2019, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that environmental pollution was continuing, endangering the health of the applicants and, more generally, that of the entire population living in the areas at risk.
The foregoing examples of sacrifice zones represent some of the most polluted and hazardous places in the world, illustrating egregious human rights violations, particularly of poor, vulnerable and marginalized populations. Sacrifice zones represent the worst imaginable dereliction of a State’s obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.