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UN environmental agency to study mercury supply in bid to curb health risks

UN environmental agency to study mercury supply in bid to curb health risks

The United Nations environmental agency was asked today to conduct a study on the amounts of mercury being traded and supplied around the world in an effort to reduce the health and environmental risks from the heavy metal that has been linked with a wide range of medical problems, including neurological damage to babies.

Governments attending the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) 23rd Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, agreed to promote “best available techniques” for reducing mercury emissions from chemical factories and other industrial sites.

An estimated 2,000 tons of mercury is released into the environment each year, mainly from coal-fired power stations, waste incinerators and as a result of artisanal mining of gold and silver. The metal is also used in such products as fluorescent light bulbs, dental fillings and thermometers.

“At the start of this Governing Council I called on Governments and delegates to take responsibility for the global environment in order to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on issues such as poverty, water and health,” UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said, referring to the goals of curbing a host of social ills by 2015.

“I think we can say that they did this, pushing forward on a wide range of fronts including heavy metals, water and sanitation, gender equality and scientific assessments of this ever-changing world,” he added.

Action is to be taken to improve communication of the risks of mercury to vulnerable groups, including pregnant mothers whose babies may be at risk if they eat too much mercury-contaminated fish or marine mammals such as seals.

The governments agreed to develop partnerships with international organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector to reduce mercury pollution with the first pilot projects to be in place by September this year.

UNEP was also asked to conduct a global assessment of two other heavy metals, cadmium and lead transport, to help governments better understand how they move through the atmosphere, seas and rivers in order to establish whether action at a global level is needed to address the health and environment effects.

Cadmium, which is found in products such as batteries, is a known toxin linked with respiratory and gastro-intestinal problems and, in acute cases, kidney and skeletal effects. Lead is linked with a variety of health problems including brain damage in young children and effects on the body's cardiovascular and reproductive systems.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is to host the UNEP Governing Council’s next special session in Dubai, the first time it will be held in the Arab world.