Groundbreaking mercury treaty adopted by 140 nations

SYMBOLICModels of dead fish placed by Greenpeace environmental activists to protest heavy metal poisoning in a river in Argentina.File photo: Reuters

SYMBOLICModels of dead fish placed by Greenpeace environmental activists to protest heavy metal poisoning in a river in Argentina.File photo: Reuters  

It will be signed in Minamata in Japan in October

More than 140 countries have agreed on a ground-breaking treaty to rein in the use and emission of health-hazardous mercury, the United Nations said. But environmental activists lament that it did not go far enough.

The world's first legally-binding treaty on mercury was reached on Saturday after a week of thorny talks and ends four years of heated discussions on how to cut global emission levels of the toxic heavy metal, which poses risks to human health and the environment.

"This was a herculean task .. but we have succeeded," Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), told reporters in Geneva.

Needs to be ratified

The treaty has been named the Minamata Convention on Mercury, in honour of the Japanese town where inhabitants for decades have suffered the consequences of serious mercury contamination.

It will be signed in Minamata in October and will take effect once ratified by 50 countries – something organisers expect will take three to four years.

"Mercury accumulates in the food chain through fish... It is released through coal fired power stations and it travels sometimes thousands of kilometres. It affects the Inuit in Canada just as it affects the small-scale artisanal gold miner somewhere in southern Africa," Steiner said.

The treaty sets a phase-out date of 2020 for a long line of products including mercury thermometers, blood pressure measuring devices, most batteries, switches, some kinds of fluorescent lamps and soaps and cosmetics.

It makes exceptions, however, for some large medical measuring devices where no mercury-free alternatives exist.

In a controversial move, it also excluded vaccines that use mercury as a preservative.

The risk from these vaccines is considered low and for many developing nations, removing them would entail losing access to vaccines altogether, Tim Kasten, head of UNEP's chemicals division explained.

While welcoming the treaty, a number of non-governmental groups said they were disappointed it did not go further.

Call for stricter laws

The text, many said, fell short in addressing the greatest sources of mercury in the environment: artisanal small-scale gold mining, which directly threatens the health of 10 –15 million people working in this field, and emissions from coal-burning power plants.

"We're disappointed... The two biggest sources of mercury have only weak controls on them," Joe DiGangi, a science advisor with the IPEN advocacy group said.

For coal-fired power plants, the treaty calls only for control and reduction of mercury emissions "where feasible", which is "vague and very discretional," he said.AFP

Mercury poisoning affects the body's immune system and development of the brain and nervous system, posing the greatest risk to foetuses and infants.

In Minamata in Japan, thousands were affected by mercury poisoning. The illness, which came to be called Minamata disease, caused muscle weakness, defects in vision and hearing, paralysis, and, in extreme cases, even death.

The mercury pollution was caused by the release of methyl mercury in wastewater by the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory from 1932 to 1968.

Mercury is also known as quicksilver.

It is found in products ranging from electrical switches, thermometers and light-bulbs, to amalgam dental fillings and even facial creams.

Large amounts of the heavy metal are released from small-scale gold mining, coal-burning power plants and metal smelters.

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