International convention on mercury entered into force

17.8.2017 - GÖTEBORG
Taking care of one of the victims of "Minamata disease"
Photo: Zdenek Thoma

Minamata Convention entered into force on Wednesday. It is the first legally binding international agreement regulating mercury pollution. It has been ratified by over seventy states, by Czech Republic this June. The International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) calls on UN officials to take action to avoid a need for further similar conventions.

The Minamata Convention, the first international legally binding agreement in the area of chemistry for the last decade, describes mercury as a global danger to human health and the environment. According to representatives of the IPEN, the agreement is the first step toward mercury exclude from the world economy.

“Mercury-contaminated sites have become a slow disaster in many countries," explains IPEN Mercury Policy Advisor Dr. Lee Bell. "To prevent mercury devastation for new generations, we need unified guidelines so that countries can identify and control risk from these sites and clean up communities where heavy mercury loads in the environment perpetuate harm to current and future generations,” adds Bell.

Gold, coal and fish to blame

The key is to stop mercury emissions from sources such as coal-fired power stations, craft gold mining or cement factories, and to stop global trade of this commodity. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, approximately 15 million of people in more than 70 countries make a living artisanal gold mining. In this activity mainly mercury is used. The coal-fired power plants release atmospheric mercury, which then gets into the sea and subsequently enters the food chain through the fish meat.

IPEN Co-Chair Olga Speranskaja says: "Most developing countries lack limits for mercury levels in fish. Those that have established limits, often set them lower than relevant limits of developed countries, thus reducing the level of protection of their residents from the adverse health impacts of mercury."

Mercury exposure leads to damages of the nervous system, kidneys and the cardiovascular system; emerging organ systems are the most sensitive to toxic effects of mercury. During fetal development, even very small amounts can cause brain damage. According to the Goldman Award holder, vigorous and coordinated global action is needed to fulfil the Convention. "The majority of developing countries, and countries with economies in transition, do not issue recommendations to pregnant women on daily intake limits of mercury-containing food products such fish and rice, with dire consequences," says Speranskaja.

The identification and cleanup of contaminated sites is another important step in protecting human health from highly toxic heavy metals.

"Our community of global environmental health, justice, and human rights NGOs will continue to hold the world’s governments accountable to uphold the spirit and intent of the treaty, to encourage more countries to ratify, and to advocate for governments to take necessary actions so that this important agreement successfully protects the many millions of humans threatened by mercury," says Pamela Miller, co-chair of IPEN.

From tragedy to agreement

"The tragedy of mercury causes profound health and economic impacts in some of the most impoverished communities around the world; communities that subsist through small scale gold mining. Unless we take global action to end the international mercury trade that dumps mercury into communities near gold mining sites, we will continue to poison some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people on our planet," says Yuyun Ismawati, IPEN representative for the area of gold mining and the Goldman Award holder.

This breakthrough agreement is named after the so-called Minamata accident in Japan, in which the industrial mercury pollution of Minamata Bay killed and nearly poisoned tens of thousands of people. Currently, the Convention has been ratified by 74 countries, ergo by more than 50, which is a minimum for entering into force.

Author: Martin Holzknecht, Mirka Zichova

This report is a part of project funded by the City of Prague. Published information may not express the donor's opinion.Praha_logo_bar[1].jpg

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