Microplastic pollution is everywhere, but not necessarily a risk to human health

21 August 2019

Tiny plastic particles known as microplastics are “everywhere – including in our drinking-water”, but they are not necessarily a risk to human health, UN experts said on Thursday.

In its first summary of the latest research into the impact of the tiny plastic pollutants on humans, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that they have been found in marine settings, waste and fresh water, food, the air and drinking-water, both bottled and from a tap.


UNDP Pakistan
A woman fetches water in Pakistan.

Frequently, microplastics are defined as less than five millimetres long, according to WHO.

Its report notes that the particles most commonly found in drinking-water are plastic bottle fragments.

“Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO’s Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health. “We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere – including in our drinking-water.”

Microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more – WHO Director, Dr. Maria Neira

According to WHO’s findings, microplastics larger than 150 micrometres (a micrometre is a millionth of a metre) are unlikely to be absorbed in the human body, while the uptake of smaller particles is likely to be limited.

Absorption of microplastic particles “including in the nano-size range may, however, be higher”, the WHO report continues, before cautioning that available data in this “emerging area” is extremely limited.

Asked by journalists about how levels of plastic pollutants differ between tap water and bottled water, WHO’s Jennifer de France from WHO’s Department of Public Health, replied that bottled water “in general did contain higher particle numbers”.

Nonetheless, Ms. France also cautioned against jumping to conclusions, owing to the lack of available data.

“In drinking water in general, often the two polymers that were most frequently detected were polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene,” she said. “Now these polymers – the polyethylene terephthalate – is often used in producing bottled water bottles, and polypropylene, is often used in producing caps. However, there were other polymers detected as well, so more studies are needed to really make a firm conclusion about where the sources are coming from.”

While citing the handful of available studies into the absorption of microplastics and nanoplastics in rats and mice, which showed symptoms including inflammation of the liver, WHO’s report insists that people are unlikely to be exposed to such high levels of pollutants.

Drinking-water contamination: a million lives lost each year

A much more clearly understood potential threat than microplastics is exposure to drinking-water contaminated by human or animal waste, said Bruce Gordon, from WHO’s Department of Public Health, highlighting a problem that affects two billion people and claims one million lives a year.

One way that Governments can tackle this problem is by putting in place better waste-water filtration systems.

The move would reduce microplastic pollution by around 90 per cent, the WHO official explained, before noting that the report had touched on people’s wider concerns about how to live more sustainably and waste less.

“Consumers shouldn’t be too worried,” Mr. Gordon said. “There’s many dimensions to this story that are beyond health. What I mean by that is, if you are a concerned citizen worried about plastic pollution and you have access to a well-managed piped supply – a water supply – why not drink from that? Why not reduce pollution. Of course, there are times when you need a water bottle when you’re walking around, but please reuse it”, he emphasized.

Lack of funds forces UN to close down life-saving aid programmes in Yemen

21 August 2019

The United Nations announced on Wednesday that it is being forced to close down several humanitarian programmes in Yemen because money pledged by Member States to pay for them has “failed to materialize”.

“We are desperate for the funds that were promised,” said Lise Grande, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen. “When money doesn’t come, people die.”

At a pledging event for Yemen held in February, the UN and humanitarian partners were promised $2.6 billion to meet the urgent needs of more than 20 million Yemenis. To date, less than half of this amount has been received.

OCHA/Giles Clarke
This baby boy weighed 2.5 kg when he was born in Yemen. Now at four months old he suffers from severe acute malnutrition. (file)

Of the 34 major UN humanitarian programmes in Yemen, only three are funded for the entire year. Several have closed in recent weeks, and many large-scale projects designed to help destitute, hungry families have been unable to start.

Another 22 life-saving programmes will close in the next two months unless funding is received.

“All of us are ashamed by the situation”, said Ms. Grande. “It’s heart-breaking to look a family in the eye and say we have no money to help.”

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the UN had been forced to suspend most of the country’s vaccination campaigns in May. Procurement of medicines has been stopped and thousands of health workers are no longer receiving financial support. Plans to construct 30 new nutrition centres have been shelved and 14 safe houses and four specialized mental health facilities for women have closed. A treatment plant that purifies the water used to irrigate agricultural fields shut in June.

“Millions of people in Yemen, who through no fault of their own are the victims of this conflict, depend on us to survive,” lamented Yemen’s UN coordinator.

Unless the funds promised at the pledging conference are received in the coming weeks, food rations for 12 million people will be reduced and at least 2.5 million malnourished children will be cut-off from essential services.

Moreover, 19 million people will lose access to health care, including one million women who depend on the UN for reproductive health. Clean water programmes for five million people will be shuttered at the end of October and tens of thousands of displaced families may find themselves homeless.

“This is the largest humanitarian operation in the world addressing the worst humanitarian crisis,” Ms. Grande stressed. “When we receive funding, we make a huge difference.”

She thanked the donors who have lived up to their promises, saying that with their money “we’ve been able to double, and in some areas, triple the amount of assistance we’re providing”.

“The impact when we do so is immediate”, Ms. Grande underscored. “In half of the districts where people were facing famine, conditions have improved to the point where families are no longer at risk of starvation”.  

Somalia security remains a concern, head of UN Mission warns Security Council

21 August 2019

Despite “encouraging” developments, insecurity across Somalia remains a serious concern, James Swan, head of the UN Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), warned the Security Council, in his first briefing to the world body since taking office.

Mr. Swan noted the effectiveness of the collaboration between the UN and international partners, and the Somali Security Forces working with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which has seen areas near the capital Mogadishu taken back from terror group al-Shabab, and stabilized.

However, Mr. Swan noted that terrorism remains a threat to progress, citing the deadly al-Shabab attack on the offices of the mayor of Mogadishu in July, which killed and injured several Government officials.

Lookahead to 2020 elections

Looking ahead to the crucial 2020 election cycle, Mr. Swan described the upcoming poll as an opportunity to advance democracy in the country, noting that preparations for the one-person-one-vote poll, including a draft electoral law, are underway. He called for the empowerment of women to be a central feature of the political process and encouraged the Federal Government to establish a task force, to ensure election security.

A more immediate concern for Mr. Swan is the regional election in Jubaland province on Thursday, where a contested outcome could see an increased level of insecurity, which would not only put progress made in Jubaland in jeopardy, but also potentially undermine national priorities, including preparations for the 2020 elections, the fight against al-Shabab and the country’s development agenda.

Signs of economic progress amid ongoing humanitarian crisis

Turning to the economic situation in Somalia, Mr. Swan said that the Government has made “great strides” towards improving the country’s fiscal performance and strengthening governance, putting Somalia on the path towards economic recovery.

This progress is set against a backdrop of an ongoing humanitarian crisis that remains “one of the most protracted in the world”, with 2.2 million Somalis facing acute food insecurity, and 2.6 million internally displaced, fleeing conflict and drought.

Mr. Swan urged Member States to urgently resource a Drought Impact Response Plan issued by the UN and Somali Government, which calls for funding of $686 million. To date just over half of that sum has been secured.

‘Countless women’ live with sexual violence

Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, also addressed the Security Council meeting, briefing the delegates on her July visit to Somalia, during which she met with senior Government officials, Parliamentarians, UN and African Union officials, frontline service providers and civil society representatives.

Ms. Patten said that countless women and girls are subjected to, or are living in, fear of sexual violence. “Victims are often invisible and inaccessible”, she said, “with nowhere to report these crimes, and nowhere to turn”, in a country where sexual predators are emboldened by a “weak legal system”.

“Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to conflict-related sexual violence”, she added, “owing to deeply-entrenched gender inequality and discrimination, continuing insecurity, weak rule of law, large-scale displacement, limited reach of State institutions, lack of access to areas controlled by Al-Shabab and the recurrent humanitarian crises”.

Ms. Patten declared that as a direct consequence of her visit, The Somali Government has committed to work with the UN on an Action Plan on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, which will focus on the connections between terrorism and conflict-related sexual violence, and a comprehensive response to conflict-related sexual violence which focuses on survivors.

Scars of terrorism ‘run deep’, UN chief says, paying tribute to victims 

21 August 2019

The scars of terrorism “run deep”, and while they may fade with time, “they never disappear”, the United Nations chief said on Wednesday, in his message for the second International Day of Remembrance and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism.

“Terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a global challenge”, according to Secretary-General António Guterres. “It causes lasting damage to individuals, families and communities”.

The General Assembly established 21 August as the International Day to honour and support the victims and survivors of terrorism and to promote and protect human rights and the rule of law to prevent and combat terrorism.

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
35,000 people have fled from Nigeria to Cameroon in the last two weeks of January to escape attacks by Boko Haram extremists. (1 February 2019)

Victims and survivors throughout the world show “great resilience, courage and spirit”, forging global alliances, addressing and countering false narratives spread by terrorists, and raising their voices against “the threat of terrorism and the absence of justice”, Mr. Guterres maintained.

He advocated for “long-term, multi-faceted support to victims and survivors of terrorism”, including through partnerships with governments and civil society, “so that they can heal, recover, rebuild their lives and help others”.

“Supporting victims of terrorism is one way in which we live up to our responsibility to defend their rights and our common humanity”, stressed the UN chief. “By listening to them, we can learn more about how to unite our communities against terrorism”.

Mr. Guterres asked that everyone “reflect on the lives that have been changed forever as a result of terrorism”.

“Let us commit to showing victims that they are not alone, and that the international community stands in solidarity with them, wherever they may be”, concluded the Secretary-General. “In their call for healing and justice, they speak for all of us”.

‘Ruthless atrocities’

At the launch of a commemorative photo exhibition at UN Headquarters in New York, the UN chief said the threat of terrorism and violent extremism is “among our most complex challenges”.

He painted a picture of “horrific attacks” in Kabul, Cairo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and other locations around the Lake Chad Basin and around the world.

“Many innocent lives have been tragically cut short” by these “ruthless atrocities”, he lamented.

Earlier this year, Mr. Guterres met with survivors of terrorist attacks whose “courage and resilience” moved him.

“Their message was clear and simple”, he said “Let us turn these harrowing experiences into powerful and positive forces for change”.

No country remains ‘unscathed or unscarred’

Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), underscored that “too many people continue to lose their lives to terrorism, and families and communities continue to suffer”.

“Recent terrorist attacks around the world have driven home the terrible truth that no society, no country remains unscathed or unscarred”, he asserted.

Flagging that his office works to do “everything we can to keep such tragedies from occurring again”, Mr. Fedotov underscored: “Our partners are first and foremost the victims and survivors of terrorism themselves, and UNODC is dedicated to empowering all those affected by this crime to take action”.

And yet, victims and survivors often face challenges in seeking justice, including difficulties accessing information before, during and after the criminal process, as well as a lack of appropriate gender- and age-sensitive mechanisms or coordination to provide longer-term medical, financial and psychosocial support.

“Governments must do more to advance victim-centred, rights-based criminal justice approaches as part of comprehensive counter-terrorism frameworks that address all aspects of victims’ needs even as they hold perpetrators to account”, the Executive Director stated.

Noting that women are “often targeted by terrorists”, he mentioned UNODC’s handbook on Gender Dimensions of Criminal Justice Responses to Terrorism, which promotes gender-sensitive measures in governments and addresses specific challenges, “including stigma and discrimination”.

“We need the active participation and leadership of women if we want to strengthen terrorism prevention and response”, he said. “The voices of all victims and survivors of terrorism are crucial in countering terrorism and preventing future attacks”.

Embassy attack in Nairobi

Some courageous survivors of terror attacks took part in the event, speaking out against hatred and sharing their experiences.

With a four-month-old son, Sarah Tikolo from Kenya, became a widow at the age of 21, on 7 August 1998, when her husband Geoffrey was killed in the United States Embassy attack in Nairobi.

“I have lived with the pain of this for many years and it has been hard,” she acknowledged. But recently she decided that to help herself and her son, she needed to forgive, as “the only way…to move forward”.

Holding on to the bitterness and anger was doing her “more harm” both “physically and emotionally”, she added.

She now works for the US Embassy, adding she was grateful to have a way to support her son’s university studies. “I couldn’t be more proud of him and what he has achieved”, she told the audience at UN Headquarters in New York.

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Secretary-General António Guterres stands with three victims of terrorism who spoke at the launch of “Surviving Terrorism: The Power of Resilience” photo exhibition. (August 2019)

London terror attacks survivor

Thelma Stober, of the United Kingdom, suffered “significant and permanent injuries”, including the loss of a limb and damage to her internal organs, as a result of the 7 July 2005 terror attacks in London, during which 52 mostly-commuters died on their way to work, and hundreds were injured.

“Having been fortunate to survive this atrocity, resilience for me has been the unrelenting determination, fortitude and drive to achieve my ‘purpose’, which is to use my experience to make a positive difference, to the lives of victims and survivors of terrorism and other crimes”, she said.

She pointed out that much has been written about supporting victims of terrorism, but asked: “Who monitors to ensure effective, fair, transparent and equal implementation? Who holds Member States to account for commitments they have signed up to?”. In Ms. Stober’s view, “this is a role the UN should play”.

9/11 widow

Meanwhile, Air Canada Flight Attendant Maureen Basnicki was on a layover in Mainz, Germany, when her “beloved husband, Ken was murdered in the 9/11 attacks in 2001”.

Many things have helped Thelma to cope with Ken’s death over the past 18 years, she said, including “working tirelessly to advocate for victims of violent crime and terrorism”.

She called on the UN “to mandate and strongly recommend that cross border victims…are fully supported by their home country, and to ensure that this support is available not just in the beginning, but also for the long-term”.

“It takes a second to shatter someone’s life forever, it takes the rest of a lifetime to rebuild it”, she argued.  “All global victims of any type of terrorism need your support”.