The entry into force today of the United Nations Minamata Convention represents a historic moment for multilateral efforts to protect the environment and human health from toxic mercury, and further demonstrates the importance and opportunities created by concerted international collaboration to solve key environmental challenges facing humanity in the Anthropocene.
It is beyond doubt that mercury is one of the most toxic and lethal substances known. The health and environmental impacts of even low levels of mercury exposure can be profound and irreversible. As such, many people would assume that their Governments already protect them from these impacts through universal, stringent regulatory controls. That is certainly the response received from the quick 'person-in-the-street' test before writing this article. Unfortunately however, that assumption would be wrong - but one which will hopefully now begin to change as a result of the collaborative platform created by the new Convention and its entry into force, as State Parties now begin to reflect the requirements of the Convention in their national law.
Due to its unique properties, mercury has been and is used in a variety of applications, including healthcare and measuring equipment, electrical and electronic devices, and industrial processes. And although global consumption has declined significantly from around 9,000 tonnes a year in 1960s (due to the growing understanding of its risks and efforts to identify alternatives), it still features heavily in certain industries and activities.
Once emitted into air or water, mercury can travel over long distances - across borders and world regions - mandating the need for international solutions.
In this blog, we take a brief look at the history of the Convention and how it is already acting as a catalyst to #makemercuryhistory for the health of millions of people across the globe and the natural environment. Afterall, it's nice to share the good news stories of tangible progress in the right direction!
Mercury: a Toxic Killer & Some Historical Context
Let's start with a quick and, unfortunately shocking, history lesson - but one which is as important today as it has ever been in an era where some continue to attempt to promote populist rhetoric misrepresenting key environmental protections as merely 'red-tape'. Learning the lessons from the Minamata disaster very quickly demonstrates why that view is so profoundly reckless and wrong - for planet, people and businesses alike.
The new Convention aptly takes its name after the worst ever mercury poisoning disaster - when the Minamata fishing town in Japan was devastated by the discharge of methylmercury into the river between 1932 and 1968 as a consequence of the operation of a chemical factory owned by Chisso Corporation. This highly toxic chemical subsequently bioaccumulated in shellfish and fish in the Minamata Bay and Shiranui Sea, thereby entering into the food-chain with lethal consequences for the local population.
It is officially reported that over 2,265 people subsequently contracted ‘Minamata disease’ as a result of the toxic discharge, with some 1,784 reported to have lost their lives (though it is thought that the actual numbers of victims of the disaster are likely to be much higher). Even today, the town continues to bear the scars of the disaster - which is amongst the greatest environmental disasters of all time - and it is estimated that the Corporation has paid in the region of $86million USD in compensation to date to its victims (many of whom were impacted in utero).
Health Impacts & Ongoing Routine Exposure to Mercury Across the Globe
Mercury is a persistent pollutant meaning that it does not break-down in the natural environment. Once deposited in soil or sediments, mercury may also change form and become methylmercury. This can then result in bioaccumulation (meaning its concentration in organisms builds to higher levels than that of its surroundings) and biomagnification (where concentrations increase in animals higher in the food chain).
The impacts on animals, such as household cats, from the Minamata disaster were so severe that the resulting conditions were referred to locally as ‘cat dancing disease’, due to the impacts on the nervous system. In humans, mercury attacks the central nervous system and can result in lifelong disability, with the impacts on children and foetuses in utero being particularly acute.
Indeed, the World Health Organisation lists mercury among the top ten chemicals of major public concern and may produce harmful effects on the central nervous system, thyroid, kidney, lungs, immune system, eyes, and skin. Today, exposure to mercury occurs primarily through consumption of seafood and inhalation.
Notwithstanding these profound impacts, it may be shocking to learn that millions of people across the globe are still exposed to unsafe levels of mercury on a daily-basis - often with little to no safety precautions in place. In countries such as Columbia, for example, mercury is frequently mixed into extracted ore in artisanal gold production to retrieve the gold via a process of burning. Very often, those exposed include women of child-bearing age and children as young as five years’ old who are the subject of labour exploitation and have little knowledge or choice about the often irreversible and life-threatening consequences they face.
Ambition Can Remedy the Harmful Practices of the Past
Although in certain processes, the regulation of mercury has sometimes proven technically challenging, improvements in technologies and regulatory requirements have driven advances in “best available techniques” in some countries which are already paying dividends to reverse the impacts of harmful practices of industrial activities, such as mercury emissions released in the combustion of coal in the power sector.
In the EU, for example, new environmental standards have recently been published which will, amongst other things, soon require more stringent mitigation measures in relation to mercury thanks in part to the tireless campaigning work of the European Environmental Bureau and other such organisations.
Similarly, in the US – in large part thanks to the work of actors such as the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign – new technologies and the transformational shift away from coal to cleaner, greener technologies in the energy sector has already been attributed to reductions of mercury in Atlantic bluefin tuna populations.
Although more is still to be done, these examples have shown that advances are possible to deliver tangible improvements for people and planet - and are delivering a step-change for others to follow.
Overview of Key Legal Obligations under the Convention
Adopted in 2013, there are now already some 74 countries which have signed up to be bound by the Convention – including Peru, Brazil, Ghana, Canada, the United States and Switzerland. On 18 May this year, the European Union and 7 other EU member countries officially ratified the Convention, reaching the threshold of 50 ratifications needed to trigger its entry into force today (in accordance with Article 31).
Article 1 specifies that the object of the Convention is to "protect the human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds"
Key highlights of the Convention include:
controls on supply and on international trade in mercury (Article 3), including a ban on new mercury mines and the phase out of existing mines;
the phase down and phase out of mercury in a number of products and processes (Articles 4, 5 and 6);
the regulation of the informal artisanal and small-scale gold mining (Article 7);
regulatory controls on emissions to air and releases to water and land (Articles 8 & 9);
requirements for storage, waste and contaminated sites (Articles 10, 11 and 12);
information and awareness raising: on health (Article 16); information exchange (Article 17); public awareness and education (Article 18); research, development and monitoring (Article 19); implementation plans (Article 20); reporting by all Parties (Article 21); and an effectiveness evaluation (Article 22).
The Convention also establishes a specific international programme to support capacity-building, technical assistance and technology transfer (Article 14). Further, it sets up an Implementation and Compliance Committee (Article 15) to oversee its operation.
An interim secretariat to the Convention has now been appointed – and the first Conference of the Parties (CoP-1) will be held between 24 September and 29 September this year in Geneva.
Of particular importance, the Global Environment Facility has been designated to provide crucial financial support and assistance to Governments from developing countries that seek to take action on mercury (in accordance with Article 13), recognising the need to provide financial support, amongst others, to fulfill the vision.
A Catalyst for Transformational Change
Albeit that many advocate the need to go further when it comes to Mercury (a view the author supports given the profound environmental and health impacts, particularly for vulnerable groups), we can celebrate the entry into force of the Convention today as providing an excellent international platform for further action to protect our health, environment and that of future generations from this toxic killer.
Indeed China – the world’s biggest miner and consumer of mercury – has already announced that it has introduced a new law which will take effect on Wednesday to ban the production and trade of a range of products containing mercury by 2020, and to ban mercury mining by 2032.
It shows that together, we can clean-up our act and #MakeMercuryHistory to protect people and the environment from this toxic killer and confine the unacceptable exposure of vulnerable workers around the globe to mercury where they belong: to the history books.
Find Out More
If you’d like to know more, follow the links in our article above – or better still, why not drop us your questions via email or twitter and we will be pleased to advise.
The official website for the Convention can be found at www.mercuryconvention.org with a series of helpful guides and summaries.