News / Health

More Than 140 Nations Approve Global Treaty to Cut Mercury

An aerial view of the environmental damage caused by illegal mining at the Canaima National Park in southern Bolivar State on June 17, 2010.
An aerial view of the environmental damage caused by illegal mining at the Canaima National Park in southern Bolivar State on June 17, 2010.
Lisa Schlein
After a week of intense negotiations, more than 140 countries have adopted the first global, legally binding treaty to prevent the release of mercury. Negotiators believe the new treaty will succeed in lessening the threat to human and environmental health.  

After all-night talks, negotiators toasted each other with champagne early Saturday to celebrate their achievement. The treaty, which has been under negotiation for four years, provides controls and reductions across a range of products and processes where mercury is used, released and emitted.

The treaty, known as the Minamata Convention on Mercury, is named after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred as a result of mercury pollution in the mid-20th century.  

Mercury is a toxic element that occurs in nature. Slightly more than 2,000 tons of mercury are emitted into the air annually as a result of human activity, increasing the threat to human health and the environment.

Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program Achim Steiner said that mercury is used widely in many sectors. It is found in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, in batteries and lighting, and in everyday products, such as skin creams and soap.

"It took us a long time to both establish and understand that in expanding this use by human beings, we were creating a terrible legacy because mercury accumulates," said Steiner. "It accumulates in the food chain through fish, for instance. It accumulates in our bodies. It is released through… the burning of coal-power stations and travels sometimes thousands of kilometers. It affects the Inuit in Canada, just as it affects the small-scale artisanal gold miner somewhere in southern Africa.”

2020 deadline

The treaty includes measures for controlling and phasing out the use of mercury. Under the treaty, governments agree to ban the production, export and import of a range of products containing mercury by 2020

Mercury is harmful to health. It can cause brain and neurological damage, especially among children. Other effects include kidney damage and damage to the digestive system. Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment.

UNEP says coal burning and small-scale gold mining are the major sources of mercury emissions into the air. The booming price of gold is triggering a significant growth in small-scale mining, especially in impoverished communities in Africa and Asia.  

Up to 15 million people work in this industry, including 3 million women and children. The head of UNEP’s Chemical Branch, Tim Kasten, said  mercury is used to separate gold from the ore-bearing rock. Unfortunately, he said, this process is extremely harmful to health.

“So, what we would like to do is to help them understand the hazards of mercury. Get them to reduce the amount of mercury they are using, either through very low technology devices that are called retorts, which is actually a way of recycling or distilling the mercury that they are using, such that they can recover between 80% and 90% of the mercury that they are using," said Kasten. "So they can use that mercury again. So they do not have to pay for the mercury. At the same time, it is not being emitted it into the air.”   

Reducing health hazards

The treaty calls upon nations that have artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations to draw up national plans within three years of the treaty going into force. The aim is to reduce and, if possible, eliminate the use of mercury in such operations.

The treaty will be open for signature at a special meeting in Japan in October. It will take effect after 50 countries have ratified it.

You May Like

Nearly Every Job in America Mapped in Detail

A nifty map pinpoints practically every job in the United States, revealing the economic character of America’s metropolitan areas, which also helps to inform the local culture

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle reports from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs