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Earth Today | Environmental advocate makes case for prioritisation of clean air

Published:Thursday | June 20, 2019 | 12:00 AM

FROM THE implications for public health to social justice, long-time environmental advocate Diana McCaulay has called for the prioritisation of clean air in Jamaica.

“The main impacts (of poor air quality) are respiratory illnesses, infections, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and negative birth outcomes. One-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution,” said the chairman of the board of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), for which she is also the former chief executive officer.

“New evidence also links air pollution to cataracts, ear infections, the onset of asthma in children, chronic deficits in lung function, stunting, diabetes, childhood obesity, developmental delays, reduced intelligence and neurological disorders afflicting both children and adults. Poor air quality has the same impact as smoking tobacco, but it has not elicited the same level of concern or advocacy from the Government of Jamaica,” added McCaulay.

She was delivering the keynote address at the public lecture of the annual symposium of the Medical Association of Jamaica on June 6.

On the issue of rights, she noted: “The right to life is universally recognised in human rights law and the UN Human Rights Committee, in 2018, stated: ‘Environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life’.”

“As regards one of the populations most vulnerable to air pollution, this led the World Health Organization (WHO) to conclude that, ‘Children have a basic human right to breathe clean air in their homes, schools, and communities’. Think about this in the context of a Riverton fire,” McCaulay added.


In Jamaica, she said there exists the right to a healthy environment.

“Here are the words from the Jamaican Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms – ‘The right to enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from the threat of injury or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage’,” McCaulay referenced.

“We have a right to a healthy environment, free from even the threat of damage, much less the actual damage. I think this means our constitutional rights have been breached by the mere existence of our unmanaged dumps, whether or not they are burning; by the mere existence of vehicles without effective emission controls; by the mere existence of cane fires. But this has not been tested in court yet. It needs to be.”

It is vital, the JET chairman said, that Jamaica acts now and with urgency to comprehensively address air quality, in line with WHO guidelines for ambient air quality and in particular PM (particulate matter) 2.5 – the smallest particles that can get deep into the lungs and even the bloodstream.

She urged the authorities to implement the UN’s seven steps to fulfil the right to clean air, including monitor air quality and impacts on human health; assess sources of air pollution; make information publicly available; establish air quality legislation, regulations, standards and policies; enforce standards; evaluate progress; and develop air quality action plans at regional and national levels.

“Jamaica has gone some way down the road to carry out the UN’s seven steps by developing some standards, regulations and plans, but the major failing is twofold – lack of enforcement and failure to make the information publicly available in a form which can be understood by a layperson,” she insisted.

“You can see the enforcement failures on a daily basis: the cane and bush fires, the burning trash, the emissions from industry (cement, power, bauxite, the refinery, batching plants); the emission from vehicles. But nothing illustrates our lack of seriousness better than the state of our garbage dumps,” she added.