Landmark Resolution on Chemical Pollution Passes World Health Assembly
chemical pollution
The WHA resolution coincided with the start of a second round of international negotiations on a treaty to curb plastic pollution in Paris on Monday morning. / Photo: Factory smoke laced with chemical pollution.

The World Health Assembly (WHA) approved a landmark resolution on Monday calling on the World Health Organization (WHO) to scale up its efforts to fight the impact of chemicals, waste and plastic pollution on human health and produce the data to back it up.

The non-binding commitment spearheaded by Peru is the first time ever that the health effects of chemicals and plastic pollution have been directly addressed at the WHO’s member state assembly. The watershed moment for the UN health body follows years of collaboration with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on the safe management of chemicals and air pollution

The resolution passed with near-unanimous support, with 40 countries including Canada, Mexico, the European Union and its member states signing on as co-sponsors. 

“This is an environmental topic”

The success of the Peruvian effort to elevate the issue to the WHO’s agenda was far from certain when negotiators sat down in Geneva last week to kick off the WHA. In fact, the resolution seemed like a long shot.

“It was not easy,” Bernardo Roca-Rey, a member of the Peruvian team who wrote the resolution, told Health Policy Watch. “When we launched the negotiations on the very first draft, several delegations were still reluctant because they were saying this is an environmental topic, not human health.” 

Previous WHA sessions would likely have dismissed Peru’s proposal outright, veterans of the organization observed. 

“Years ago, it was difficult to bring all these [environmental] topics to health ministers,” Maria Neira, the director of Environment, Climate Change and Health at the WHO said at a side event discussing the resolution last Thursday. “They thought, well maybe this is important, but we have to deal with malaria, we have to focus on tuberculosis – we focus on diseases.”

Peru led the charge on the resolution 

Spatial view of large-scale illegal gold mining in the Madre de Dios region in the Southeastern Peruvian Amazon.

Peru had a week of negotiations and a wealth of knowledge about the issues to make its case. 

The country’s experience with illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon meant its team was intimately aware of the consequences of dismissing the health effects of environmental crises. Peru’s rainforests are home to the highest levels of atmospheric mercury on earth, endangering the lives of miners, indigenous communities and wildlife exposed to its water and air.

“New chemicals are being developed every day, the demand and production of new chemicals continue to grow every day, and there is more and more evidence of the impact this is having on biodiversity, the environment and human health,” Roca-Rey said. “This is not only an environmental problem, it is also a human health problem.”

Generate more data on the health impacts of plastics pollution

Large data gaps continue to limit our understanding of the health impacts caused by plastic pollution.

The Peruvian delegation also highlighted the critical need for organizations like WHO to generate more data on the health effects of plastic pollution. 

The limited evidence base that exists suggests that microplastics can interfere with the function of cells in internal organs, block endocrine receptors that affect the behaviour of hormones, and find their way into breast milk, raising fears over their potential impact on the health of babies.

The resolution asks WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to prepare a report on the “human health implications of chemicals, waste and pollution” and identify “existing data gaps” limiting scientific understanding of the health impacts caused by plastic pollution. 

“We know we have microplastics in our food, but we are still not actually aware of the extent that this is impacting human health,” Roca-Rey said. “We just found out less than two years ago that we have microplastics in our bloodstream. I don’t think we are fully aware of the extent of the issue.”

Multiple pathways exist for microplastics to enter the body. Widespread incineration of plastic waste is a major contributor to air pollution, particularly in developing countries. Other pathways include the ingestion of fish and wildlife, contaminated water, and the contamination of food and beverages with microplastics from plastic containers and utensils.

A WHO report would also have huge impacts in the wider plastics debate, Roca-Rey said. 

“More and more research is happening, but the problem is that this research doesn’t necessarily have the certification of an international organization checking that the information is reliable,” he said. “Members states are sometimes reluctant to accept this evidence.”

The success of Peru’s arguments in gaining WHA support for the resolution point to the ongoing shift in attitudes across WHO and other UN agencies towards the understanding that threats to the environment, health, climate and biodiversity must be seen as intertwined rather than isolated – a pivot known internally as the “One Health” approach.

“This is really a milestone,” Roca-Rey said. “It has put the topic fully on the WHO agenda.”

Image Credits: UNEP, Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra.

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