New convention calls time on mercury poisoning

18 May 2017 – The world took a historic step forward in the fight against mercury poisoning today, as the European Union and seven of its member states (Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania and Sweden) ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury, one of the world’s top ten chemical threats to health.

The Convention, which has been signed by 128 countries, will now come into force in 90 days, on 16 August 2017. It is the first new global Convention related to the environment and health in close to a decade, and commits governments to specific measures to control man-made mercury pollution. These cover the entire “lifecycle” of man-made mercury pollution and include banning new mercury mines, phasing-out existing ones, regulating artisanal and small-scale gold mining, and reducing emissions and mercury use. Since the element is indestructible, the Convention also stipulates conditions for interim storage and disposal of mercury waste.

“The Minamata Convention demonstrates a global commitment to protecting human health and the environment." said UN Secretary General, António Guterres. "Today’s action shows how problems that affect us all can also bring us together for the common good.”

There is no safe level of exposure to mercury, and everyone is at risk because the dangerous heavy metal has spread to the remotest parts of the earth and can be found in everyday products, including cosmetics, lightbulbs, batteries and teeth fillings. Children, newborn and unborn babies are most vulnerable, along with populations who eat contaminated fish, those who use mercury at work, and people who live near of a source of mercury pollution or in colder climates where the dangerous heavy metal tends to accumulate.

“Who wants to live in a world where putting on makeup, powering our phones and even buying a wedding ring depends on exposing millions of people to the risk of mercury poisoning?” said Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment. “But with mercury we have solutions that are as obvious as the problem itself. There are alternatives to all of mercury’s current applications, such as newer, safer industrial processes. Big and small countries can all play a role – as can the man and woman in the street, just by changing what they buy and use.”

Up to 8,900 tonnes of mercury are emitted each year. It can be released naturally through the weathering of mercury-containing rocks, forest fires and volcanic eruptions, but significant emissions also come from human processes, particularly coal burning and artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Mining alone exposes up to 15 million workers in 70 different countries to mercury poisoning, including child labourers.

Other man-made sources of mercury pollution include the production of chlorine and some plastics, waste incineration and use of mercury in laboratories, pharmaceuticals, preservatives, paints and jewelry.

“Today is a pivotal moment in the fight against harmful chemicals and their negative impact on health and the environment,” said Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility.  “Mercury can be transported over distances far removed from its original emission source, contaminating the food we eat, the water we drink and the air that we breathe.”

The Convention takes its name from the most severe mercury poisoning disaster in history, which came to light in Minamata, Japan in May 1956, after sustained dumping of industrial wastewaters into Minamata Bay, beginning in the 1930s. Local villages who ate fish and shellfish from the bay started suffering convulsions, psychosis, loss of consciousness and coma. In all, thousands of people were certified as having directly suffered from mercury poisoning, now known as Minamata disease.