May 19, 2024

Advanced Ailment Care

Elevating Health Solutions

Environmental rights are key to good health

4 min read

Across the country, we physicians are seeing the effects of an unhealthy planet on the communities we serve. At the same time, the federal government is asking people to contribute towards the implementation framework of the right to a healthy environment, newly recognized under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).

The opportunity is significant. Government must seize the moment and move to solve environmental, health and justice problems in a holistic, systemic way that prevents future harms.

As physicians, we see the harms to people in our communities from the toxic exposures they face and the resulting diseases. We know that people’s health is an indicator of their environments and other social factors. A framework for implementing the new right must therefore go beyond research and monitoring into urgent action.

We see the harm to the health and well-being from the injustices of disproportionate location and greater exposure of Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities to polluting industries and environmental hazards across so-called Canada. Indigenous Peoples already face multiple barriers to supportive and equitable health care, and toxic exposures represent a particularly problematic and disproportionate impact that violates their rights.

In Akwesasne, on the borders of Ontario, Quebec and the U.S., the people of the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) First Nation are subjected to toxic upstream industrial pollution, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have been found to be related to thyroid dysfunction, reproductive health harms, cancers, autoimmune diseases, mental health disorders, and more.

In northern B.C., fracking activities are connected to childhood leukemia, cardiovascular diseases, neurological effects and respiratory illnesses, along with the infringement of Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

In Quebec, municipalities are struggling to address widespread PFAS contamination in their drinking water sources, and are unable to complete the expensive “de-pollution” cleanup needed to protect their communities’ water from highly toxic substances linked to kidney and liver cancers, reproductive harms and other illnesses.

In southern Ontario, Aamjiwnaang First Nation, surrounded by Chemical Valley where plastics and petrochemical industry emissions fill the air and watersheds, the toxic exposures are linked to high rates of cancer, leukemia, birth anomalies, learning disabilities and a skewed sex ratio.

In northern Alberta, the exposure of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation to oilsands tailings ponds has significantly impacted their ability to practise their inherent and treaty rights, with negative mental health impacts for Indigenous peoples and local communities.

The link between human rights, human health and an unhealthy planet is clear to us as physicians. The federal government must also make these connections, write Ojistoh Horn and Melissa Lem @CAPE_ACME #healthybynature #EnvironmentalRacism #cdnpoli

In northwestern Ontario, many Anishinaabeg communities along the Wabigoon River system have faced chronic exposure to mercury discharged from the Dryden pulp and paper mill 100 kilometres upstream, causing profound neurological, social and economic costs to these communities.

To tackle these and other violations of people’s right to a healthy environment, we as physicians know that the new right must drive preventive and precautionary decisions that consider the people whose health conditions are related to their environments. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action include the reporting of health disparities, and environmental exposure data must be a part of this.

By prioritizing action on the most harmful exposures and pollution and recognizing the industry practices that are harming people and the planet with their toxic impacts, we’ll see better health in the most impacted communities — and a better chance for children. When we protect the most vulnerable, we protect everyone.

Action on prohibitions and pollution prevention must be imminent and timely, strong enforcement is necessary, and cases of infringement of the right must be identified and addressed. “Pollution hot spots” should be prioritized for early implementation of the right, and ongoing research and analysis should be conducted to continue to inform implementation. The federal government must fulfil its duty to protect people through a rights-based approach that will ensure the right is properly protected and prioritized against competing considerations that are not rights.

The link between human rights, human health and an unhealthy planet is clear to us as physicians. The federal government must also make these links at this critical moment for environmental rights in Canada.

Dr. Ojistoh Horn is a Mohawk/Haudenosaunee woman working as a family physician and is a Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) board member.

Dr. Melissa Lem is the Canadian Association for Physicians for the Environment board chair and a Vancouver family physician who also works in rural and northern communities.

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