Kumamoto, Japan – A landmark treaty to curb the use of mercury has opened for signature in Japan, marking a further watershed moment towards the global phase-out of the notorious heavy metal in many products and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted.
The newest United Nations treaty, named the Minamata Convention after a Japanese city where serious health damage occurred as a result of mercury pollution in the mid-20th Century, is both wide-ranging and legally binding. It provides controls and reductions in areas ranging from medical equipment such as thermometers to energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors. Pinpointing populations at risk, boosting medical care and better training of healthcare professionals in identifying and treating mercury-related effects will also form part of the new agreement.
Agreed in January, 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.
“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,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner. “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.”
Mercury and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts including brain and neurological damage especially among the young. Others include kidney damage and damage to the digestive system. Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well documented problems.
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. As much human exposure to mercury is through the consumption of contaminated fish, aquatic environments are the critical link to human health.
In 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, switches and relays, certain types of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode 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 mercury emissions and releases from various 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 fast-track action until the new treaty comes into force in the expected three to five years’ time has been pledged by Japan, Norway and Switzerland.