A clean environment is a human right

Eliud Kipchoge
The more we learn about pollution and its impact on human health and nature, the more we must see stopping pollution as an ethical imperative for all.


The great Kenyan athlete Eliud Kipchoge won the men’s London marathon in April 2019, giving a truly exceptional performance (2 hours, 2 minutes and 33 seconds). But Kipchoge had wanted to be even better.

In 2017 he attempted to break the two-hour barrier in Italy; but narrowly missed it. In the documentary Breaking  2, we see everything being carefully selected and monitored, from the course to the weather, racing strategy, clothes, nutrition and hydration. Yet one thing that was vital to good performance was overlooked – the quality of the air.

We know from research that air pollution affects everyone, including elite athletes. Inhalation of particulate matter – the worst offender, and mostly associated with incomplete combustion – is four times greater during aerobic exercise than during rest, affecting peak performance, decreasing maximum oxygen uptake and increasing inflammatory blood markers.

Chemical innovation 

The effects of air pollution are most obvious in endurance events, but even people training near busy roads or urban centres will be affected.

Our industrial history has been one of spectacular chemical innovation, but this has been accompanied by increasing levels of pollution.

Today, pollution resulting from human activity, has reached even the most remote areas of the planet. In the polar caps and high mountains, and below the ocean’s abyssal zone, in trenches over 10,000 meters deep, creatures have been found polluted with chemicals including flame retardants, paint plasticizers and water-proofers.

Regulatory efforts have barely kept pace with the thousands of new chemicals and materials produced annually, let alone reduced the use of many hazardous chemicals that have been in existence for many years.

In the case of asbestos and mercury, the deadly aftermath has taken decades to address, even though the evidence of harm was widely known from an early stage in its use in industrial processes. It took 107 years and many thousands of deaths for a ban on asbestos to be implemented and for mercury it took more than 70 years to achieve agreement on the Minimata Convention.

Water and sanitation

We already know that pollution is affecting our health and the health of other life-forms on the planet. The impacts include poisoning, reduced life expectancy, lowered mental capacity and cognitive development, cancer, asthma, and dementia.  

What is surprising is that that we are not taking urgent action on anything like the scale needed to stop pollution in its tracks. 

Why not? The real problem is that pollution is complex. Tackling pollution is not just about stopping the use of diesel cars and plastic bags, it is about rethinking the way we consume and produce goods and services, how we use pharmaceuticals and chemicals in our everyday lives, safely dispose of household waste, radioactive materials and hazardous chemicals, manage the land through biomass burning  and forest clearance, and mine for minerals which may allow heavy metals to leach into the soil or ocean.  

Pollution directly affects access to safe water and sanitation. According to the World Health Organisation, nearly 1 billion people still rely on open defecation and only 20 percent of globally produced wastewater is properly treated.

Land-based sources of pollution are affecting the health of freshwater and marine ecosystems with between 5 and 13 million tonnes of plastic in rivers entering the ocean each year, causing losses in productivity, endocrine disruption and cancers in freshwater and marine organisms. 

Human rights

Pollution is not an issue restricted to the ministries of environment; it is a matter for the whole of government.

Unfortunately, history has shown us that this represents a significant policy challenge, because even when there has been conclusive evidence of harm, international agreements on restricting or banning particular pollutants have been very slow in coming. 

The time has come for a different approach. One based on the moral responsibility we owe to each other and the planet to live in a clean environment.

The ethical case has already been made through Article 30 of the Human Rights Declaration which asserts that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security and guarantees the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being.

Governments are also supposed to take measures for children to account for the dangers and risks of environmental pollution.


In 2012 the Human Rights Council established a Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment; the latest appointee, David Boyd, is focussing on the legal and ethical basis for the human right to breathe clean air. 

Now, five leading academies from USA, Germany, South Africa and Brazil are supporting are launching a Global Call For Action on Air Pollution and Health on June 19th2019 at the United Nations.

The call is supported by unequivocal evidence of the harm that air pollution causes from the world’s leading doctors and specialists, who all concur that air pollution represents an existential threat to human life. 

It is imperative that everyone assumes some responsibility for reducing pollution and cleaning up the environment. To support the efforts of governments, citizens and business, the United Nations Environment Assemblies launched the #BeatPollution and #CleanSeas campaigns.

If met, these voluntary commitments could lead to more than 1.47 billion people breathing cleaner air, 1 in 7 people worldwide experiencing improved access to sanitation and wastewater treatment, 30 percent of the world’s coastlines being cleaned-up; lead in paint and fuels being eliminated and food systems becoming significantly less dependent on chemical inputs.

Political leadership

What we now need is strong political leadership; partnerships for a global compact on all pollution; the right policies to tackle “hard-hitting” pollutants; more sustainable consumption and production; big investment in clean production and recycling infrastructure; and advocacy for action.

Can such actions happen quickly enough to ensure Eliud Kipchoge achieves his bid later this year in London to break the two-hour marathon barrier or will the air quality in London confound the result?

For my home team of Kenya, I really hope it is the former. 

This Author 

Professor Jacqueline McGlade is environment Professor at Gresham College. She is also Professor at UCL and Maasai Mara University in Kenya. This article is based on her most recent lecture. She tweets @jacquiemcglade.

Image: Eliud Kipchoge, Wikimedia