Global perspective Human stories

UN-backed treaty curbing use of hazardous mercury opens for signature

Credit UNEP
Credit UNEP

UN-backed treaty curbing use of hazardous mercury opens for signature

An international convention to curb the use of mercury opened for signature today in Japan, marking a watershed moment in the effort to phase-out the toxic heavy metal in the many products and industries in which it is used, according to United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

The Minamata Convention, named after a Japanese city where mercury pollution caused severe health effects in the mid-20th century, begins a process of long-needed regulation for the often hazardous substance, said UNEP’s Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“With this convention, nations have laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized since Greek and Roman times,” Mr. Steiner said.

“Everyone in the world stands to benefit from it, in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come,” he added.

The Convention marks the culmination of four years of complex negotiations among over 140 member states, which were convened in Geneva by UNEP beginning in 2009 and resulted in a wide-ranging and legally binding text in January 2013, according to UNEP.

It provides controls and reductions of mercury in applications from medical equipment to energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors. Pinpointing populations at risk, boosting medical care and promoting better training of health care professionals in identification and treatment of mercury-related illness are also part of the agreement.

According to UNEP, exposure to mercury and its various compounds can cause brain and neurological damage, especially in young people, as well as harm to kidneys and the digestive system. Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well- documented effects.

According to a recent UNEP report, Global Mercury Assessment 2013, Asia is the largest regional emitter of mercury, and accounts for just under half of all global releases. The report also finds that an estimated 260 tonnes of mercury - previously held in soils - are being released into rivers and lakes.

Aquatic environments are the critical link to health because much of the human exposure to mercury is due to the consumption of contaminated fish, UNEP said.

Through the new treaty, governments have agreed on a range of mercury-containing products whose production, export and import will be banned by 2020. These include batteries (except for 'button cell' batteries used in implantable medical devices), as well as switches and relays, certain types of fluorescent lamps and soaps and cosmetics.

The treaty will also target the artisanal and small-scale gold mining industries, where mercury is used to separate gold from the ore-bearing rock. In addition, it will control emissions from large industrial facilities ranging from coal-fired power stations and industrial boilers to certain kinds of smelters handling, for example, zinc and gold.

Initial funding to accelerate action as the new treaty comes into force - in the expected three to five years' time – has been pledged by Japan, Norway and Switzerland.