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Environment ministers at UN meeting seek to reduce global levels of mercury

Environment ministers at UN meeting seek to reduce global levels of mercury

Global action to reduce mercury levels is high on the agenda for environment ministers from around the world, who convened in Nairobi today for the opening of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council's annual meeting.

According to a report by UNEP circulated at the weeklong meeting, curbing pollution from power stations could significantly reduce mercury poisoning of the planet. Coal-fired power stations and waste incinerators now account for around 1,500 tons, or 70 per cent, of new, quantified man-made mercury emissions to the atmosphere, with the lion’s share now coming from developing countries and emissions from Asia, at 860 tons, the highest.

“As combustion of fossil fuels is increasing in order to meet the growing energy demands of both developing and developed nations, mercury emissions can be expected to increase accordingly in the absence of the deployment of control technologies or the use of alternative energy sources,” the report says.

Artisanal mining of gold and silver, which is happening in an increasing number of less developed nations, is another significant source of mercury pollution, releasing an estimated 400 to 500 tons of mercury annually to the air, soils and waterways, according to the expert report.

Mercury is used to extract these precious metals from ores, resulting in elevated exposures and risks for the miners and their families, as well as contamination of the local and regional environment.

Once in the atmosphere, this hazardous heavy metal can travel hundreds and thousands of miles, contaminating places far away from the world’s sites where the pollution was originally discharged.