Children and young people are hurt the most and often heard the least with respect to chemicals and waste management. To address these challenges, the first-ever youth forum on chemicals and waste sought to engage youth in the design, implementation, monitoring, follow-up, and review of chemicals and waste policies at all levels. Several panel discussions and a moderated intergenerational dialogue with youth and key decision makers took place in the margins of the fifth session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5).

Opening the Youth Forum on Chemicals Governance 2023, Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, UN Environment Programme (UNEP), called youth agents of change and urged them to hold policymakers and decision makers accountable for their actions.

A panel discussion themed, ‘Children, Adolescents and Their Exposure to Toxic Chemicals: Environmental Health Case Studies and Priorities,’ brought together young health professionals, scientists, and children’s health-focused advocates and agencies to share their experiences on chemical risks. Elena Jardan, World Health Organization (WHO), stressed that 1.6 million deaths in children under five were linked to the environment in 2016 alone. She also mentioned WHO’s work on children’s health and the environment, which includes International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week each October.

During the discussion, panelists:

  • shared experiences with street markets in Accra, Ghana, where youth advocate to sellers and shoppers about environmental health, including chemicals and waste management;
  • shared results from the Infants Environmental Health Study undertaken in rural Costa Rica that focuses on the effects of pesticides and manganese on growth, neurodevelopment, and the respiratory system;
  • addressed lead poisoning and its cultural dimension in Mexico since the main source of exposure is the use of glazed clay pottery; and
  • highlighted challenges for green and sustainable chemistry amid turmoil and devastation in Syria.  

Another panel discussion titled, ‘The Right to a Toxic-Free Environment for Children and All Generations,’ included a statement by Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, who emphasized that the field of human rights and the environment continues to evolve due to the activism and experiences of youth.

Desiree Montecillo-Narvaez, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), underscored that the right to a healthy environment is inherent in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and discussed UNICEF’s areas of intervention, including the Healthy Environments for Healthy Children Global Programme Framework. 

Indigenous and other representatives highlighted:

  • efforts to address environmental challenges facing the Lakota People, including lingering impacts of the Homestake Gold Mine, which operated from 1886-2002, was the largest gold mine in North America, and led to significant mercury contamination;
  • challenges for people living in the Amazon, including fish with high levels of toxic heavy metals; and
  • challenges facing the Ryukyuan People, a Japonic-speaking East Asian ethnic group in the Ryukyu Islands, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) contamination linked to fire-fighting foams from the 32 US military bases in Okinawa leaking into the groundwater and rivers.

A panel discussion on ‘Youth-Led Action on Chemicals and Waste in Communities Around the World’ showcased youth-led initiatives, organizations, and movements that have been successful in shaping safe, responsible chemicals and waste management in different regional contexts.

Panelists focused on:

  • the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) work in youth engagement, including through the Gustavo Fonseca Youth Conservation Fellowship Program and innovative initiatives focusing on youth engagement in sustainable fashion and construction;
  • efforts to deter US educational institutions from using synthetic hazardous fertilizers and pesticides;
  • air pollution-associated childhood asthma leading to a data-driven decision-making app that analyzes air and presents results that are accessible to policymakers to encourage commitments to addressing air pollution;
  • efforts to eliminate medical waste from sewage systems and general waste by persuading pharmacies to emplace collection boxes and dispose of collected wastes; and
  • toxic trash cleanup efforts in the US leading to advocacy that resulted in a new American Climate Corps.

During the Intergenerational Dialogue, Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, UNEP, lamented Kenyan children’s lack of knowledge about their country’s rich fauna due to lack of access by car to national parks. Rolph Payet, Executive Secretary, Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) Conventions, said people must begin learning about chemicals and waste-related issues from a young age.

Other panelists described programmes for teaching green chemistry and called for age- and gender-disaggregated studies on climate impacts and for educating youth on chemicals and their dangers. They said youth have the most “skin in the game,” but the quietest voice, noting they are being “locked into a world of waste but locked out of political processes to address it.”

The Youth Forum on Chemicals Governance was convened by the UN Major Group for Children and Youth, with the Government of Germany and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) Secretariat. It took place in Bonn, Germany, on 27 September 2023. [ENB Coverage of Youth Forum on Chemicals Governance 2023]