“If you want to learn about the health of a population, look at the air they breathe, the water they drink and the places where they live.”
— Hippocrates, 5th century BC
If this could be understood so many centuries ago, then in 2021, we should know better and do better. Our children’s future depends on it.
Since 2009, when a small group of committed citizens began to recognize the impacts of environmental pollution on their children’s health, we have been working towards the recognition of children’s right to a healthy environment in New Brunswick, Canada. The collaborative efforts of the New Brunswick Children’s Environmental Health Collaborative and later the New Brunswick Environmental Rights Caucus (both under the New Brunswick Environmental Network) to recognize this right sparked interest and input from environmental lawyers and academic researchers from various Canadian provinces, internationally acclaimed physicians and children’s troubadour and environmental health advocate, Raffi Cavoukian.
They understood that recognizing children’s right to a healthy environment would not only improve the health of our children, but our entire population, as well as all species living in our ecosystems – our waterways, forests, air, and soil. Healthier ecosystems will contribute to a more sustainable way of life in the province.
Thus came about our “Made-in-New Brunswick” child-focused Bill of Environmental Rights that would recognize that children, and therefore all our people, have the right to a healthy environment: NB Environmental Bill of Rights: An Act to Protect Children, All New Brunswickers and Nature.
In New Brunswick, our focus has always been on the children. If we want healthy children then we must have healthy environments. There is a growing understanding among some of the world’s most respected scholars and organizations that “the health of children, and their future, is intimately linked to the health of the planet.” The WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission in February 2020 presented their case for placing children at the heart of sustainability and our shared human endeavour. This is what we want to do in New Brunswick.
Children’s right to a safe and healthy environment has now become the focus of a world-wide movement. The global Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative (CERI), under the auspices of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David R. Boyd, strives to make sure that children’s fundamental right to a safe and healthy environment is recognized and fulfilled. This coalition of countries and organizations has articulated clearly the urgency of such work: children are far less able to exercise their most fundamental rights to information, to be heard in decision-making on environmental issues and to seek justice for violations of their rights.
As the Preamble of our Draft Bill indicates: Children 0-6 years and the unborn child are much more vulnerable than adults to environmental harm. Science confirms this.
One of the most respected physicians globally on this topic is children’s environmental health advocate and co-author of the Textbook on Children’s Environmental Health, Philip Landrigan. He notes that we need to understand the complexities of children’s environments – how their health is influenced by chemical exposures in early life, the nutritional environment in the mother’s womb, the built environment, stress, and the social environment”.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment grouped the types of environmental harm that affect children’s rights into these categories:
Toxic substances and waste
The loss of biodiversity and access to nature
New Brunswick, Canada has obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which recognizes that children have rights and freedoms that need to be protected, including the inherent right to life (Article 6) and the right to enjoy the highest standard of health (Article 24.)
“Our house is on fire!”. Greta Thunberg has made this message clear to the leaders of world governments and to the youth themselves. She has inspired youth and adults around the world to take action on the climate crisis – to march on Fridays for the Future.
When our youngest citizens recognize the urgency of the crisis, and demand decisions from adults – how can we as a society turn our backs on them and carry on with business as usual? As their parents and caretakers, we have a moral obligation to provide our children with the conditions they need in order to survive and thrive in the future.
We were heartbroken when we learned that Ella Kissi Debrah, who died at the age of nine in February 2013 in the UK, was the first person to have air pollution on her death certificate. In December 2020, the coroner stated that her death “was due to asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution”.
We grieved for her, for her family and for all the other people in this world who have had their lives cut short due to air pollution. But we were heartened to see that finally, human-caused air pollution has been officially recognized as a cause of death. Perhaps now policymakers and corporate leaders will take the urgent action needed to turn this situation around.
WHY NOT? THE TIME IS RIGHT
In New Brunswick, we want to get our Bill into our legislature in 2021. We are reaching out to our Members of the Legislature, Cabinet Ministers, local citizens, as well as to the national and international community. This broad outreach is our way of sharing this child-focused Bill far and wide, with anyone who would use it.
THE VIRTUAL LAUNCH OF THE PROPOSED BILL
As part of this outreach, we are holding a virtual launch of the Bill on June 2, from 3:00 pm to 4:40 pm Atlantic Standard Time, which is open to the public, world-wide. David R. Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, will deliver the keynote address. Register now!
CALL TO ACTION
We are calling on the people of New Brunswick, and indeed, the world community, to protect and nurture our children – from conception onward. A Bill protecting the child’s right to a healthy environment, if enacted, would ensure that children and all citizens are protected from environmental harm, and provide them with healthy environments that nurture their growth and development. And by this measure, current and future generations will have access to an environment that supports vibrant populations of all species.
We give the last word to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which stated in 2015:
Given the overwhelming scientific consensus on the cause and potentially irreversible harm associated with climate change, failure to take prompt, substantive action would be an act of injustice to all children.
Bonnie Hamilton Bogart and Marg Milburn are members of The Environmental Rights Caucus of the New Brunswick Environmental Network, Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.