UN environment agency chief urges global action to curb mercury

12 November 2007

The head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) today called on governments to intensify efforts to produce an international agreement curbing the poisonous heavy metal mercury.

The head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) today called on governments to intensify efforts to produce an international agreement curbing the poisonous heavy metal mercury.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner made his comments as governments and experts gather in Bangkok under the auspices of the agency's Chemicals Branch to explore a range of options on how best to reduce environmental sources of mercury – from voluntary measures to legally binding treaties.

The meeting comes amid growing concern that increased burning of coal, which is naturally contaminated with mercury, is leading to releases to the air in some parts of the world from where it can spread around the globe.

The soaring gold price may also be increasing mercury pollution locally and worldwide, UNEP said, since the poisonous heavy metal is used to extract gold from ore in many artisanal mining operations which involve millions of workers and their families.

Mr. pointed out that scientists have been warning about the dangers to human health, wildlife and the wider environment for well over a century. He acknowledged that many countries have, in recent decades, taken steps to cut mercury uses and to protect their citizens from exposure to this toxic heavy metal.

But he warned that “a comprehensive and decisive response to the global challenge of mercury is not in place and this needs to be urgently addressed.”

Mercury is linked with a wide range of health effects including irreversible damage to the human nervous system including the brain and scientists have concluded there is no safe limit when it comes to mercury exposure, according to UNEP.

The report of the Bangkok meeting will be presented to environment ministers in February to UNEP's Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

 

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