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.

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