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United Nations: Agreement on Binding Convention to Reduce Mercury Use

(Jan. 25, 2013) On January 19, 2013, the environment ministers of more than 140 governments, participating in the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC5) to prepare a global instrument on mercury, agreed to a global, legally binding treaty to reduce the use of the heavy metal. Mercury poses health risks as well as risks to the environment. (Press Release, Minamata Convention Agreed by Nations, United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) (Jan. 19, 2013).) The Minamata Convention on Mercury, negotiations on which began in 2009, “provides controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted.” (Id.)

Ban and/or Phase-Out of Mercury in Products

Governments have agreed under the treaty that by 2020 they will ban the production, export, and import of versions of the following goods that contain mercury:

  • batteries, except for the “button cell” type used in medical device implants;
  • switches and relays;
  • certain types of compact fluorescent lamps;
  • cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps that contain mercury; and
  • soaps and cosmetics. (Id.)

Production of non-electronic medical devices such as thermometers and blood pressure monitors is also to be phased out by 2020. The use of dental fillings that have mercury amalgam is also to be discontinued, although apparently no deadline was set. (Id.) Certain large measuring devices, for which at present no mercury-free alternatives exist, are exempted from the phase-out. In addition, vaccines that use mercury as a preservative and products used in religious or traditional rites have been excluded from the treaty. (Id.)

Reduction of Mercury in Mining Operations

The Convention also addresses artisanal and small-scale gold mining processes, which use mercury to separate gold from the gold-bearing ore. Reportedly,”[e]missions and releases from such operations and from coal-fired power stations represent the biggest source of mercury pollution world-wide.” (Id.) Together, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) and coal burning are said to account for about 62% of the annual total anthropogenic emissions to the atmosphere; among other major contributors to mercury pollution are ferrous and non-ferrous metal production and cement production. About 40% of the global anthropogenic emissions have been attributed to East and Southeast Asia, with China contributing about 75% of the region’s mercury (about one-third of the global total). (UNEP, GLOBAL MERCURY ASSESSMENT 2013 31 (Jan. 2013).)

The treaty will require countries to formulate strategies to reduce the amount of mercury used in small-scale mining operations. Countries with ASGM mine operations are to draw up national plans – to include public awareness campaigns and support for mercury-free alternatives – within three years of the treaty’s entry into force to reduce or eliminate their use of mercury. (Press Release, supra.)

Control of Mercury Emissions from Large Industrial Facilities

In addition, the Convention will control mercury emissions from various large industrial facilities, such as coal-fired power stations, industrial boilers, and certain kinds of smelters, as well as waste incineration and cement clinker facilities. The countries also agreed to install the best available technologies in new power plants and facilities and to draw up plans to reduce emissions from the existing ones. (Id.)

Other Treaty Issues

The treaty also addresses the direct mining of mercury, the heavy metal’s export and import, and the safe storage of waste mercury. Other provisions will specify populations at risk and promote medical care and better-trained health care professionals, in order to identify and treat mercury-related effects. The Convention will be open for signature at a special meeting in Japan to be held in October 2013. (Id.)

Background on Minamata and Mercury Poisoning

The Convention is named after a city in Japan on the western coast of the island of Kyushu. The residents of Minamata experienced serious damage to their health as a result of mercury pollution, caused by spillage into the Minamata Bay of mercury used by the Chisso Corporation, which began in the early 1930s to manufacture acetaldehyde for the production of plastics. It was not known until the 1950s, when animals and human began to exhibit signs of neurological disease, that the metal had been incorporated into an organic form, methyl mercury chloride, which could enter the food chain. The mercury poisoning that affected the local populace came to be known as “Minamata disease.” (Douglas Allchin, The Poisoning of Minamata, University of Minnesota website; Masazumi Harada, Minamata Disease and the Mercury Pollution of the Globe, Environmental Information Network for Asia and the Pacific website (both last visited Jan. 23, 2013).)

Mercury and its compounds have been found to cause a range of serious health problems, including brain and neurological damage (especially to the young), kidney damage, and damage to the digestive system, with victims susceptible to suffering memory loss and language impairment among other deleterious effects. (Press Release, supra.)

Mercury and the Environment

According to the UNEP, over time anthropogenic emissions have increased mercury loads present in the environment, leading to higher re-emission rates and “a time lag of years or decades between emissions reductions and lower mercury levels in the food web, including pathways of human exposure.” (GLOBAL MERCURY ASSESSMENT 2013, supra.) As for the aquatic environment, the UNEP study states that “[t]he upper 100 meters of the oceans have twice the mercury that they did a century ago. Intermediate and deeper waters have 10-25% more mercury on average, reflecting the slow transport of mercury downwards in the oceans.” Moreover, arctic marine animals have a mercury concentration that is about 10-12 times higher than in preindustrial times, which means that “on average about 92% of the mercury in marine predators such as seabirds, seals, and whales is anthropogenic in origin.” (Id. at 31-32.)