Albion Monitor /News

Public Health May Require World Court

"The more a company tries to reduce product costs (to stay competitive), the more pollution results"
(IPS) RIO DE JANEIRO -- Current environmental standards do not meet the health needs of the world's people, so new public health standards must be developed and backed by a global environmental court, some public health groups are pleading.

The groups, including tribunals of health experts who have released findings on the disasters at Chernobyl and Bhopal, contend that everything from nuclear waste to the transportation of sewage is insufficiently regulated to avoid health hazards.

"We need a strong international body to set regulations to protect health," says Dr. Rosalie Bertell, president of Canada's International Institute of Public Health.

"I think it's more important now because of the World Trade Organization (and its free-trade enforcement), because the more a company tries to reduce product costs (to stay competitive), the more pollution results," she adds. "We can't go to the lowest common denominator or we're going to have widespread illness."

It is no coincidence that Bhopal and Chernobyl disasters occurred in places where human life has not the price recognized through American or Western European standards
Already, according to data from the U.N. Environment Program and U.N. Children's Fund, some 12 million children die each year from preventable diseases, many of which result from environmental hazards.

Bertell says her group's investigations have shown that all kinds of health risks -- from sewage dumped in plastic bags on Malaysia's streets to workers unknowingly cleaning toxic waste in Uganda -- are not held to any international standard. Consequently, governments and non-governmental organizations have little ability to take violators of basic health norms to court.

Some groups argue that that must now change. The Permanent People's Tribunal, an Italy-based group of judges and health officials, has called for "United Nations support for the proposed design of the International Court of the Environment, which recognizes the rights of NGOs and individuals to bring suits against polluters."

The tribunal argues that disasters like the nuclear leak at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union and the methyl isocyanate leak in Bhopal, India, prove the need for a mechanism that would provide adequate compensation and redress.

"It is no coincidence that the two worst industrial catastrophes, Bhopal and Chernobyl, occurred in places where human life has not the price it is evaluated through American or Western European standards," the tribunal argued in a report last year.

In this February's issue of the British Medical Journal, Drs. Ramana Dhara, Peter Cullinan and S. Acquilla argue that survivors of the Bhopal disaster are linked to high incidences of long-term respiratory disease, probably due to irreversible destruction of small airways in the people exposed.

But that consequence was not detected at the time, and therefore not reflected either in treatment of Bhopal survivors nor in their compensation by the U.S.-based Union Carbide company responsible for the leak.

"The dearth of rigorous examinations of the relation between exposure to the gas and subsequent morbidity is one of the lesser tragedies of the Bhopal disaster," the doctors conclude. "One result is that the establishment of appropriate models of health care and the equitable distribution of adequate compensation have been hampered."

The tribunal contends that if NGOs and governments could sue companies for their actions in a court that upholds international health standards, those problems would be greatly reduced. Bertell notes that such a procedure would require two bodies: a mechanism to set up global standards and a new environmental court to try cases on their basis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is already trying to expand its efforts into monitoring public health. But Bertell doubts the U.N. organ will be effective at that goal: "WHO serves at the pleasure of nations, and their agenda is set by national governments." So far, she notes, it has proven unable to set regulations to prevent health risks caused by weapons.

Yet progress on setting up an environmental court is also far off. Governments have only slowly been able to plan the creation of an International Criminal Court to try war crimes in recent years.

Bertell adds that the March 13-19 Rio Plus Five Forum on environmental issues barely considered public health risks or the idea of an environmental court that could redress them.

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Albion Monitor March 25, 1997 (

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