A new global treaty could eliminate within three decades the commercial use of mercury in everything from batteries, paints and skin-lightening creams to utility plants and small-scale gold mining, the head of the U.N.'s environment agency said Thursday.
Achim Steiner, the executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, describes the Minamata Convention on Mercury as a major game-changer for a naturally occurring element that — once released into the environment through an industrial process — tends to accumulate in fish and work up the food chain.
The agreement still needs ratification by dozens of countries, and includes a concession to nations with small-scale gold mining — one of the biggest sources of pollution.
The first new global convention on environment and health for nearly a decade was formally adopted as international law to little notice worldwide at a gathering in Japan last week of nearly 140 government delegations, U.N. officials said. More than 90 nations plus the European Union signed on.
India and Russia did not sign, but China and the EU did and the United States intended to but couldn't last week because of its government shutdown.
Steiner says the treaty, which still requires ratification by at least 50 of the nations that sign on before becoming legally binding for those countries, could accomplish its aim of curbing harmful emissions of mercury anywhere from about 2025 to 2050. It would do that through banning new mercury mines and phasing out existing ones, imposing control measures on air emissions and regulating artisanal or small-scale gold mining.
"Essentially, what we have managed to do is to persuade the international community to send a very clear signal — the use of mercury in industrial processes, in cosmetics, in medical equipment, is essentially over," Steiner told reporters in Geneva. "It doesn't mean that all mercury will disappear tomorrow."
But nations with artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations, one of the biggest sources of mercury releases, will only be required to draw up national plans within three years of the treaty entering force and then to reduce and — if possible — eliminate the use of mercury in such operations.
Mercury poses the greatest risk of nerve damage to pregnant women, women of child-bearing age and young children. It can also cause brain and kidney damage, language impairment and memory loss. There are no safe limits for the consumption of mercury and its compounds, according to the U.N.'s World Health Organization.
The treaty was named for the southern Japanese city of Minamata, where a severe neurological disorder caused by mercury poisoning was discovered in the late 1950s, caused by methylmercury escaping from the city's industrial wastewater.
The illness, now known as Minamata disease, sickened people who ate contaminated fish, killed hundreds and left many more badly crippled. About 12,000 people have demanded government compensation.