Adopting community right-to-know for environmental risk reduction


Industries should be required to report all their toxics use and any possible exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace, including transportation of chemicals through communities and placement of chemicals in consumer products. Toxic releases with health risks should be reported to the public in order that substances like dioxins, mercury and other heavy metals, which are extremely dangerous to children and are known or suspected to cause cancer, neurological damage, birth defects and are highly persistent at very low levels, can be better controlled. Manufacturers and importers of children's products should disclose the presence of substances that cause cancer, reproductive damage, and neurological harm.

The right-to-know is required to provide the public with: toxics use data on chemicals used in facilities, transported through communities, and contained in consumer products; information on occupational exposure to toxic chemicals; and information on some of the most toxic substances, such as lead dioxin in mercury—toxics that persist in the environment for decades.

Communication about risks and hazards to health and the environment is one of the most sensitive and controversial areas of public communication. Providing members of the public with insufficient or inaccurate information about a hazard may deprive them of the opportunity to take precautionary or preventive action and can have serious detrimental consequences—in some cases, literally costing lives. Where timely provision of information could reduce or eliminate a threat to health or the environment, it should be incumbent on those holding such information to make it available forthwith to the potentially affected public.


One in four Americans, including 10 million children under the age of 12, lives within 4 miles of a toxic waste dump. Multi-national corporations continue to manufacture and use 1,000 new synthetic chemicals every year—adding to the 72,000 already on the market. In 1994 industries reported releasing more than 2 billion pounds of toxics into the environment; many of which cause cancer and reproductive disorders. The USA office of Technology Assessment estimates that due to reporting gaps the actual amount may be as much as twenty times more. Only 5% of toxic pollution is reported to the public, in part because some of the worst polluting industries—including mining, utilities, incinerators and oil and gas companies—are not required to report to the public about any of their pollution.

This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities.


Agenda 21 recommends considering the adoption of community right-to-know or other public information-dissemination programmes, when appropriate, as possible risk reduction tools. Appropriate international organizations, in particular UNEP, OECD, the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) and other interested parties, should consider the possibility of developing a guidance document on the establishment of such programmes for use by interested governments. The document should build on existing work on accidents and include new guidance on toxic emission inventories and risk communication. Such guidance should include harmonization of requirements, definitions and data elements to promote uniformity and allow sharing of data internationally.

Paragraphs 40 to 42 of the Ã…rhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (1998) endorses the right to know of European citizens in environmental matters and promotes public participation in policy formulation.

The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), representing business investors, financial institutions and corporations promotes 10 principles of environmental management to its corporate members. The fifth principle states: "We will strive to minimize the environmental, health and safety risks to our employees and the communities in which we operate through safe technologies, facilities and operating procedures, and by being prepared for emergencies.

Type Classification:
E: Emanations of other strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesGOAL 15: Life on Land