140 nations sign UN treaty to curb mercury pollution

21 Jan 2013


Over 140 nations have endorsed a global, legally-binding agreement aimed at curbing pollution due to mercury, the heavy metal that causes significant health and environmental hazards.

The treaty signed at a United Nations forum in Geneva over the weekend and known as 'Minamata convention on mercury' provides controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted, a UN release said.

Mercury, a naturally-occurring, silvery-white liquid metal at normal temperatures can be harmful to humans and the environment. When released into air, land and water, it can circulate in the environment for centuries affecting the humans and the food chain.

Human health hazards due to mercury include brain and neurological disorder, damages to kidneys and the digestive system, memory loss, language impairment and many other problems.

Small-scale gold mining, coal-fired power plants, steel and cement industries are the main contributors of mercury emissions.

Besides, caustic-chlorine sector particularly in India, which produces caustic soda for use in a variety of industries including paper, textiles, soaps and detergents contributes significantly to mercury contamination in the country.

Other sources of mercury pollution include production of thermometers, blood pressure equipment, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, compact fluorescent lamps, switches as well as dental amalgam filling and recycling of mercury from waste and spent products.

The agreement is the result of four years of intense negotiations between the nations, which will be further discussed at a special meeting in Japan in October addressing various activities including mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) executive director Achim Steiner said: ''After complex and often all-night sessions here in Geneva, nations have today laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized for well over a century.''

''Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva, in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come. I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible,'' he added.

A recent study by the UN Environment Programme notes how parts of Africa, Asia and South America could see increasing mercury emissions into the environment due to its use in small-scale gold mining and burning of coal by industries.

The provisions of the treaty include banning of export and import of a range of mercury-containing products such as batteries except for button cell batteries used in implantable medical devices, switches and relays, certain types of compact fluorescent lamps, soaps and cosmetics by 2020.

Thermometers and blood pressure devices are also included for phase-out by 2020.

The governments have also agreed on some exemptions where currently there are no mercury-free alternatives.

The agreement also provides for identifying populations at risk, improving medical care and training of healthcare professionals in identifying and treating mercury-related problems.

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