U.S. Sends Mercury Treaty Ratification to U.N.

A memorial for those killed and sickened by mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan, overlooks the bay.
A memorial for those killed and sickened by mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan, overlooks the bay.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
Washington,
08 November 2013

A global agreement to reduce environmental pollution from the heavy metal mercury moved forward November 6 when the United States became the first nation to send ratifying documents to the United Nations. That action from the U.S. Department of State came on the same day that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Kerri-Ann Jones signed the Minamata Convention.

Now signed by 93 countries, the treaty earned its first round of signatures in Kumamoto, Japan, October 10. U.S. representatives were unable to attend that event because of a federal government shutdown.

“The Minamata Convention is a major step forward to address mercury exposure and improve public health,” Jones said in a news release issued by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP). “The Minamata Convention is an important achievement for the health of people around the world and the U.S. is pleased to be able to join the Convention.”

The Minamata Convention is named for a Japanese fishing village where thousands of people were poisoned by mercury in the mid-20th century. For more than 30 years, a factory dumped mercury-containing waste into Minamata Bay, which was an important fishing site and food source for the nearby population.

About 50,000 people suffered some health effects, according to the World Health Organization, and more than 2,000 cases of Minamata disease — marked by brain damage, paralysis and delirium — were certified.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element, used in a variety of industrial processes. This “global and ubiquitous metal,” as it is described by UNEP, enters the food chain and stays, a process known as bioaccumulation. Mercury lingers in the tissue of microorganisms and fish that are subsequently consumed by humans.

Health agencies have classified mercury poisoning as a major public health threat, particularly for children, women of childbearing age and populations dependent on fish and marine mammals as a large part of the diet. Native peoples of Arctic regions, for instance, are at particular risk. The broad range of potential health consequences of mercury poisoning includes irritability, tremors, disturbances to vision, memory loss, impaired thyroid and liver function and cardiovascular problems.

Once released into the environment, mercury can travel long distances through winds and waters, which is another reason effective countermeasures must be taken at a global level. As an element, it does not break down into more benign components.

The UNEP governing council took the first step toward the Minamata Convention in 2009. From its Nairobi, Kenya, headquarters, UNEP has supported the negotiation process that produced this agreement. U.N. Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, “Almost everyone in the world — be they small-scale gold miners, expectant mothers or waste-handlers in developing countries — will benefit from its provisions.”

Environmental releases of mercury through small-scale gold mining have become a particular concern in recent years as the price of gold has quadrupled over the last 15 years. Miners use the heavy metal to extract gold from ore, but in doing so they expose themselves to its toxic effects and release it into the environment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked with miners in Senegal and in the Brazillian and Peruvian Amazon to introduce methods that minimize the release of hazardous mercury vapors in ore extraction and gold processing. These methods are “dramatically reducing mercury levels for workers, customers, and the surrounding communities,” EPA reports.

EPA has been involved in UNEP’s Global Mercury Partnership since 2005, working with governments, manufacturers and industries to reduce mercury use and emissions. EPA is also leading global work to reduce use and demand for mercury-containing products. This effort is devoted to finding substitutions and identifying mercury alternatives for use in product manufacture.

EPA and the global partnership are also reducing and eliminating mercury releases that occur in manufacturing processes or through the use of mercury-containing products. In one initiative, EPA has worked in several countries to eliminate mercury-containing medical devices in hospitals.

About half of the global human-caused mercury emissions come from the burning of coal, metals production and the production of cement, according to UNEP. Improving controls on releases occurring through industrial uses is a key objective of the convention. By becoming parties to the treaty, nations commit to reducing mercury use as viable alternatives to mercury become available. Over time, UNEP documents say, these actions will reduce the demand for mercury, cutting the market and the demand for a mercury supply.

The United States has already taken significant steps to reduce the amount of mercury released to the environment domestically.