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Dawn

Published Date: Jan 20, 2013

Mercury treaty adopted in Geneva by 140 countries

GENEVA, Jan 19: Delegations from some 140 countries
agreed on 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-burning
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.

UNEP’s
Steiner acknowledged the criticism but stressed that the treaty “is a dynamic
instrument,” insisting it would evolve over time to address all the areas of
concern. Switzerland and Norway, which initiated the process a decade ago, had
along with Japan pledged an initial $3.0 million to get things started.

Once
up and running the treaty will provide funds to help transition away from
mercury-linked products and processes through the UN’s existing Global
Environment Facility (GEF), and probably also a second mechanism, organisers said.