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Convention’s 10-year birthday marks commitment to prevent new mercury scare

The Chisso chemical plant in Minamata, Japan.
Minimata Disease Municipal Museum
The Chisso chemical plant in Minamata, Japan.

Convention’s 10-year birthday marks commitment to prevent new mercury scare

Climate and Environment

Banning new mercury mines is among milestones achieved under the Minamata Convention, which is now 10 years old. 

To help understand why this international treaty is important,  UN News has put together a quick guide on global efforts to eradicate exposure to quicksilver, as mercury is also known.

Making waves

The landmark Convention is named after the Japanese coastal city where residents suffered decades of mercury poisoning from industrial wastewater released by a chemical factory in Minamata Bay. 

Worldwide, the inherent danger of mercury lies in the fact that it becomes more concentrated the higher it rises up the food chain. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), mercury reaches its “highest level in predator fish such as in swordfish and sharks that may be consumed by humans”.

Level worst

To highlight the problem, UNEP carried out the world’s first global mercury assessment in 2002, which found that almost no corner of the Earth was untouched by mercury – even the Arctic.

Linked to this threat, UNEP has also reported “serious impacts” on wildlife, including reproduction among birds and predatory mammals. This is why eradicating the risk of mercury to humans and the environment are the twin aims of the Convention.

Stately progress

Today, no less than 150 States parties have ratified the Minamata Convention; concretely, it calls for countries to phase out the use of mercury in manufacturing, ban new mercury mines and limit mercury emissions.

“The agreement is the youngest global environmental treaty and addresses a significant public health concern,” said Executive Secretary of the Minamata Convention, Monika Stankiewicz, speaking in Geneva on Tuesday. “As we move forward to make mercury history, I hope to see more countries joining the Minamata Convention”.

The intention is that this will happen at the fifth meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Minamata Convention (COP-5) in Geneva from 30 October to 3 November. The Convention came into force in 2017 after the 50th Member State ratified it. 

Helping to reinforce the force of the Minamata Convention is a trio of related UN international agreements – the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions

Apart from having incredibly long titles, these three treaties* represent nothing less than the international community’s response to calls for urgent action on a range of pollutants.  

Today, each of these treaties regulates chemicals and hazardous waste globally, for example the Stockholm Convention, which was signed in May 2001 and came into force three years later to eliminate or restrict scores of harmful chemicals including pesticides and mercury.

The Basel Convention – adopted in March 1989 and entering into force three years later - and Minamata are also closely linked when it comes to tackling mercury waste, its environmentally sound management and transportation across international boundaries. 

In 1998 The Rotterdam Convention was signed. The multilateral treaty promotes a shared responsibility in relation to the importation of hazardous chemicals and came into force in 2004.

What’s so bad about mercury?

Exposure to mercury can cause a range of serious health problems, including irreversible brain damage. Although these dangers are widely known, today, the chemical is present in myriad household products, including some batteries, thermometers, light bulbs and cosmetics. 

Burning coal is also a major source of mercury, with atmospheric mercury concentrations now some 450 per cent above natural levels. The chemical is also commonly used in small-scale gold mining, an industry that globally employs up to 20 million people, including women and children.

What has Minamata achieved?

The Convention has achieved several milestones, from banning new mercury mines, extending the list of prohibited products and manufacturing processes that must not be imported or exported and establishing controls on emissions and releases.

Talks’ golden moment 

Countries gathering at the UN in Geneva for Minamata discussions later this month plan to target the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining, along with new restrictions on mercury-added products and improving national reporting on mercury pollution. 

Delegates will also consider proposals by Botswana and Burkina Faso, on behalf of the Africa region to eliminate mercury-containing skin-lightening products, fluorescent lighting and the use of mercury in dental fillings.


What’s in a name?

*Those Convention names in full are:

  • The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal
  • The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade
  • The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants