Michael T. Bender, Co-Coordinator of the Zero Mercury Working Group, a global coalition of over 90 public interest non-governmental organisations, blogs on the dangers of mercury, outlining what is being done to reduce its use and exposure.
A new global legally binding agreement, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, was signed by 94 countries last October in Japan after more than a decade of study and debate.
In January 2014, the World Health Organization’s Executive Board adopted a resolution in support of the new Convention.
During that meeting and on behalf of Consumers International, I presented a supporting statement.
However, the resolution won’t be finalised until it’s adopted by the World Assembly in May.
Mercury presents a health hazard because of its global dissemination, persistence, toxicity, and bioaccumulative nature.
Exposure is ubiquitous and can occur through a variety of pathways, but most prominently through ingestion of contaminated fish and inhalation of mercury vapours from artisanal and small scale gold mining (ASGM).
The evidence now available suggests that methylmercury has adverse effects at doses below those declared acceptable 10 to 15 years ago. Yet it may take several years until exposure guidelines can be updated to reflect the changing body of epidemiological evidence.
Therefore, an extra degree of caution about prenatal methylmercury exposure seems warranted, and adds urgency to the Convention’s objective of reducing emissions.
The Convention’s objective is to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.
Over time, the Convention bans primary mining for mercury, curtails trade, phases out mercury uses in products and processes, and regulates releases from coal-fired power plants and metals production facilities.
The Convention is designed to be pragmatic and flexible, and attempts to strike a balance with control measures tailored to particular issues, some legally binding and others voluntary.
It recognises issues such as ASGM cannot be solved by regulations alone, but require broader attention within a sustainable development context, allowing time for societal and industry transformation.
However, the treaty has been rendered less effective by long delays before important mercury reduction mandates for larger sources enter into force.
To the extent politically and technologically feasible, reducing human exposure to mercury through the Convention and related activities is projected to save billions of dollars of avoided human exposure costs worldwide for generations to come.
A recent study estimates that up to €9 billion per year in avoided damages could be saved in Europe alone by reducing the exposure risk from methlymercury to children's brains.
Now that the Convention has been adopted, all governments should be urged to quickly ratify the Convention and enact policies to reduce mercury use, trade and pollution and exposure to mercury. Once 50 countries ratify the Convention, it enters into force.
While there are alternatives to most mercury products and processes, and cost-effective technologies available for controlling most major sources, there are no alternatives to global cooperation to reduce human exposure to mercury.
Michael T. Bender is Co-Coordinator of the Zero Mercury Working Group, a global coalition of over 90 public interest nongovernmental organisations from more than 50 countries, see: http://www.zeromercury.org/. Parts of this blog appeared in an article by Michael Bender, Ned Groth and Elena Lymberidi, published in the Journal of Public Health Policy in October 2013.
For more information on the new Convention, visit: http://www.mercuryconvention.org/.