The world took an historic step forward in the fight against mercury poisoning as the European Union and seven of its member States ratified the first new global convention related to the environment and health in close to a decade.
The Minamata Convention demonstrates a global commitment to protecting human health and the environment.
Having been signed by 128 countries, the Minamata Convention on Mercury will come into force in 90 days – on 16 August 2017 – after being ratified by Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania and Sweden.
According to the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), the Convention commits governments to specific measures to control the entire “lifecycle” of man-made mercury pollution, one of the world’s top ten chemical threats to health.
This includes 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.
There are no safe levels 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.
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 jewellery.
Thousands of people were certified as having directly suffered from mercury poisoning, now known as Minamata disease.
Minamata Convention on Mercury:
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. It was agreed at the fifth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on mercury in Geneva, Switzerland on 19 January 2013 and adopted later that year on 10 October 2013 at a Diplomatic Conference (Conference of Plenipotentiaries), held in Kumamoto, Japan.
The Convention draws attention to a global and ubiquitous metal that, while naturally occurring, has broad uses in everyday objects and is released to the atmosphere, soil and water from a variety of sources. Controlling the anthropogenic releases of mercury throughout its lifecycle has been a key factor in shaping the obligations under the Convention.
Major highlights of the Minamata Convention include a ban on new mercury mines, the phase-out of existing ones, the phase out and phase down of mercury use in a number of products and processes, control measures on emissions to air and on releases to land and water, and the regulation of the informal sector of artisanal and small-scale gold mining. The Convention also addresses interim storage of mercury and its disposal once it becomes waste, sites contaminated by mercury as well as health issues.
India signed this convention in 2014.