A ground-breaking global convention on mercury has comes into effect, protecting millions of children and infants from possible neurological and health damage.
The Minamata Convention commits Governments to specific measures, which 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.
Mercury is a naturally occurring element. It can be released to the environment from natural sources – such as weathering of mercury-containing rocks, forest fires, volcanic eruptions or geothermal activities – but also from human activities.
An estimated 5500-8900 tons of mercury is currently emitted and re-emitted each year to the atmosphere, with much of the re-emitted mercury considered to be related to human activity, as are the direct releases.
Due to its unique properties, mercury has been used in various products and processes for hundreds of years. Currently, it is mostly utilised in industrial processes that produce chlorine (mercury chlor-alkali plants) or vinyl chloride monomer for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) production, and polyurethane elastomers.
It is extensively used to extract gold from ore in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. It is contained in products such as electrical switches (including thermostats), relays, measuring and control equipment, energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs, batteries and dental amalgam. It is also used in laboratories, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, including in vaccines as a preservative, paints, and jewellery.
Mercury is also released unintentionally from some industrial processes, such as coal-fired power and heat generation, cement production, mining and other metallurgic activities such as non-ferrous metals production, as well as from incineration of many types of waste.
Governments that are party to the Convention are now legally bound to take a range of measures to protect human health and the environment by addressing mercury throughout its lifecycle.
The Convention takes its name from the most severe mercury poisoning disaster in history. In 1956, local villages suffered convulsions, psychosis, loss of consciousness and coma from eating the fish in Minamata Bay, Japan, in which industrial wastewaters had been dumped since the 1930s. Thousands of people were certified as having directly suffered from mercury poisoning, now known as Minamata disease.
The Minamata Convention provides controls over a myriad of products containing mercury, the manufacture, import and export of which will be altogether prohibited by 2020, except where countries have requested an exemption for an initial 5-year period. These products include certain types of batteries, of lamps such as compact fluorescent lamps, of and relays, soaps and cosmetics, thermometers, and blood pressure devices. Dental fillings which use mercury amalgam are also regulated under the Convention, and their use must be phased down through a number of measures.
According to UNEP, up to 8,900 metric 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.
There is no safe level of exposure to mercury nor are there cures for mercury poisoning, which at high levels causes irreversible neurological and health damage.
The mercury cycle is a biogeochemical cycle involving mercury. Mercury is notable for being the only metal which is liquid at room temperature. It is a volatile metal and evaporates, though it takes quite a while to do so.
The Convention – the first new global convention related to the environment and health in close to a decade – entered force today, 90 days after the fiftieth party ratified it on 18 May. There are now 74 parties to the Convention and 128 countries have signed it.
|Participant||Signature||Ratification, Acceptance (A), Approval (AA), Accession (a)|
|Antigua and Barbuda||23/09/2016 (a)|
|Bolivia (Plurinational State of)||10/10/2013||26/01/2016|
|Burkina Faso||10/10/2013||10/04/2017 (a)|
|Central African Republic||10/10/2013|
|Congo (Republic of the)||08/10/2014|
|El Salvador||20/06/2017 (a)|
|European Union||10/10/2013||18/05/2017 (AA)|
|Iran (Islamic Republic of)||10/10/2013||16/06/2017|
|Korea (Republic of)||24/09/2014|
|Moldova (Republic of)||10/10/2013||20/06/2017|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||24/05/2017 (a)|
|Syrian Arab Republic||24/09/2014||26/07/2017|
|Tanzania (United Republic of)||10/10/2013|
|The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia||25/07/2014|
|United Arab Emirates||10/10/2013||27/04/2015|
|United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland||10/10/2013|
|United States of America||06/11/2013||06/11/2013 (A)|
|Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of)||10/10/2013|
|Viet Nam||11/10/2013||23/06/2017 (AA)|