Delegates from 140 countries agreed at a U.N. meeting in Kenya, to pursue voluntary measures to reduce emissions of mercury, which can damage the nervous system. A proposal to adopt a binding agreement regulating mercury was rejected.
European Union countries attending a meeting of the governing council of the U.N. Environment Program hoped to garner support for an international binding agreement to regulate the production, distribution, use and disposal of mercury.
But the United States and other countries pushed for a more voluntary approach to mercury regulation, pending further study. The so-called "G-77" group of developing nations argued that they lacked the resources to be able to abide by an internationally binding agreement.
In the end, governments agreed to voluntary measures to reduce emissions, production and use.
The plan involves partnerships between governments, non-government organizations, businesses, and others to meet these goals. The UNEP will examine progress made in two years' time.
The U.S. deputy assistant secretary for environment, Claudia McMurray, said she was satisfied with the outcome. "We came here with the position that we wanted to take immediate action through these partnerships, and that we wanted to defer a decision on a binding instrument, until we had the results of those partnerships, and that's indeed what we've done," he said.
An official in Sweden's Ministry of Sustainable Development, Petra Hagstrom, tells VOA why Sweden wanted binding regulations. "With the legally binding instrument, it is more certain that things will happen. Mercury is a global substance, it's a global problem and [with] the flows and trades of mercury, there's no way you can get to that by national regulation. The trade and the supply-demand side is very important, and to get a global instrument to restrict those would be very good," he said.
The U.N. Environment Program says an estimated two-thousand tons of mercury is released into the environment each year, most of it from coal-fired power plants, waste incinerators and as a result of some forms of gold and silver mining.
Mercury has been known to cause damage to the nervous systems of babies, as well as insomnia, skin rashes and dermatitis, memory loss, mental disturbances, kidney damage and other ill effects. Last year, U.N. health experts lowered the recommended maximum intake of mercury through food, because of its potential to harm a developing fetus. Certain kinds of fish are the most significant source of mercury pollution in food.