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Daily Times

Published Date: Jan 20, 2013

Mercury treaty adopted in Geneva by 140 countries: UN

GENEVA:
Delegations from some 140 countries agreed Saturday to adopt a ground-breaking
treaty limiting the use and emission of health-hazardous mercury, the UN said,
although environmental activists lamented it did not go far enough.

The world’s first legally binding treaty on mercury, reached after a week of
thorny talks, will aim to reduce global emission levels of the toxic heavy
metal also known as quicksilver, 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.


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. The text will be signed in Minamata in October
and will take effect once it has been ratified by 50 countries – something
organisers expect will take three to four years.

Mercury
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, metal smelters and cement production.

“It
is quite remarkable how much mercury in a sense has entered into use in our
lives…. We’ve been creating a terrible legacy,” Steiner said. “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,” he said.

Serious mercury poisoning affects the body’s immune system and development of
the brain and nervous system, posing the greatest risk to foetuses and infants.
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 however
provides exceptions for some large medical measuring devices where no mercury-free
alternatives exist yet.

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

Amid pressure from dentist groups, the treaty also did not provide a cut-off
date for the use of dental fillings using mercury, but did agree that the product
should be phased down.

Non-governmental
groups at the talks meanwhile lamented that the treaty fell short in addressing
the greatest sources of mercury in the environment: small-scale gold mining,
which directly threatens the health of the some 10-15 million people working in
this field and contaminates water and air, and emissions from coal-buring power
plants. “We’re disappointed,” Joe DiGangi, a senior advisor with an
environmental umbrella group called IPEN, told AFP, saying that “the two
biggest sources of mercury have only weak controls on them.” 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.

As
for small gold mining activities, using mercury will still be allowed, meaning
imports and exports of the metal for this process will be legal, and
governments will only be required to control the activity if they deem it “more
than insignificant – whatever that means,” DiGangi said.