After four years of lengthy talks, more than 140 countries have signed onto the first legally binding international treaty for controlling mercury emissions.
The Minamata Convention – named after a city in Japan where industrial discharges into rivers poisoned fish and induced widespread mercury poisoning when people ate them - takes steps to halt mercury emissions and phases out or restricts many household products that contain mercury.
The pact will be signed officially in Japan later this year. After that, national governments will move to rule-making which could take three to five years.
The EU had already banned mercury exports in 2011 and the US did so as of January 1, 2013.
The treaty calls for governments to phase out mercury from production, export or import of these products by 2020:
- Batteries, except button batteries used in medical devices
- Switches and relays
- Certain compact fluorescent lightbulbs
- Cold cathode and external electrode fluorescent lamps
- Soaps and cosmetics
- Non-electronic medical devices such as thermometers and blood pressure devices
Coal Plant Pollution
A UN study concludes coal burning is the source for a quarter of the world's mercury emissions, especially in Asia, where coal plants lack pollution controls.
Countries that have coal-fired power plants, including India and China, agreed to install pollution prevention equipment on new and existing plants.
Unfortunately, as in climate change talks, they couldn't agree on concrete targets for reducing mercury levels, and that's been pushed forward to future meetings.
The language is also quite loose, requiring mercury reductions, "when feasible." There's also no mention of preventing mercury emissions to land and water, only saying "countries should try to act." And the treaty doesn't require clean-up of contaminated sites.
Last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency finally published regulations that, for the first time, set strict limits on mercury emssions from power plants (and arsenic, lead, acid gases and other toxic air pollution).
Power plants are the largest industrial source of mercury in the US, but special interests managed to delay regulations for over 20 years.
Limits For Small-Scale Mining
Emissions of mercury from artisanal and small-scale gold mines, which support the livelihoods of 15 million people in 70 countries, are now the main source of mercury emissions in the air.
A United Nations Environment Program report, "Global Mercury Assessment 2013," documents that mercury emissions from small scale gold mining have doubled since 2005. Some of that rise is from more thorough data collection, but most of it comes from record prices for gold.
This issue is particularly acute in developing countries, where workers and their families are exposed through inhalation during smelting. Mercury is used to separate gold from the ore in which it is embedded.
That mercury is too often released into rivers, where it contaminates the water, poisoning fish and endangering the food chain.
"In communities where [small-scale gold mining] is a prevalent practice, you can see people who have tremors, who have difficulty walking, who have a lot of uncontrolled eye movements – things that are external symptoms of neurological impacts," Susan Keane, a senior environmental analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Guardian. "One big problem in these communities is that doctors aren't trained to recognize the symptoms or the problems of mercury pollution, so they don't even know what they're dealing with."
Unfortunately, the treaty is particularly weak in this respect.
Mercury remains an "allowed use" in small scale gold mining, with no phase-out plan or restrictions on import, export or use. Governments are only required to draft national action plans to reduce its use.
Dangers of Mercury
The dangers associated with mercury poisoning have been known for centuries. Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that can permanently damage the brain and kidneys. It can even be passed from a mother to her developing fetus, resulting in brain damage, reduced intelligence and mental retardation.
Major sources of mercury are emissions from coal-fired power plants, mining, cement production and waste incineration. As mercury emissions are released into the air, rivers and oceans, it spreads around the world and builds up in humans mostly through consumption of fish.
A recent study of 4,000 people across 17 countries showed that a third of the sample had mercury levels that exceed safe limits.
One of the decisions that's held the treaty back is how developing countries would finance pollution control technologies and phase out dangerous mining practices.
In the last week, Japan, Norway and Switzerland offered a total of $3 million to get the ball rolling, but clearly, more funding will be needed.