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One step closer towards a global treaty on mercury
03/ 02/ 2011

One step closer towards a global treaty on mercuryThe realisation of a global treaty on mercury is gaining momentum following a meeting of over 120 states in Chiba, Japan. The metal can have seriously damaging effects on the environment, while human exposure to mercury poses a multitude of health risks.

Chiba (Japan) / Nairobi, 2 February 2011 - The realisation of a global treaty on mercury is gaining momentum following a meeting of over 120 states in Japan. Governments met last week in the city of Chiba to continue negotiations on creating a global treaty on mercury and help reduce sources of mercury pollution. The meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) - for which UNEP's Chemical Branch provides the Secretariat - was the second in a series of five such events, which is due to culminate in a legally binding instrument on mercury by 2013.

Although the focus of delegates was on this future target, the negotiations began with reflections on a tragic event from the past. Victims of Minamata Disease - caused by sustained industrial dumping of mercury compounds into Japan's Minamata Bay between the 1930s and 1960s - addressed the conference, appealing for progress towards the completion of a global treaty. Around 3,000 people are thought to suffer from Minimata Disease, the effects of which include physical deformities and mental illness.
Today, the presence of mercury in the environment still remains of global concern. This is primarily due to its long-range transport in the atmosphere, its persistence in the environment and its ability to contaminate ecosystems and food chains.
Exposure to mercury has an adverse effect on human health, including permanent damage to the nervous system. Women and children are especially vulnerable as mercury can be transferred from a mother to her unborn child.
Delegates in Chiba expressed agreement on the need to reduce risks to human health and the environment from mercury so that events such as those that unfolded at Minamata do not recur.

Among the key issues at stake in the negotiations towards a global treaty are how to deal with major emissions of mercury from industry, in particular from coal combustion for power generation, the phasing out of mercury use in a variety of products such as medical devices, encouraging small-scale gold miners to end the use of mercury amalgamation to concentrate their gold and the management of mercury waste and contaminated sites.

There was consensus in Chiba that primary mining of mercury represents one of the least desirable sources of supply and a broad acceptance of the move to seek to eliminate such sources.

Many delegations noted the need to continue to allow mercury to be used in products and processes subject to exemptions and that a future treaty would need to distinguish between such 'commodity' mercury and mercury as waste. The disposal of mercury is particularly difficult. As an element, mercury cannot be destroyed but can only be stored - either in its current form or in an inert, lower-risk form following a stabilisation process (such as reacting it with sulphur). Developing countries noted the complexity and costs of some storage techniques. The export of mercury for environmentally sound storage was considered important for some regions, in particular the Small Island Developing States.

Coal combustion is the largest source of mercury emissions to air. Nations reliant on electricity generated from coal noted during the negotiations the importance of any controls not restricting their economic development and indicating their unwillingness to consider binding mercury reduction targets. However, some of these countries also drew attention to existing and continuing efforts to reduce a broad range of air pollutants, including mercury.

The negotiations in Chiba were based on a paper prepared by the Secretariat, which set out draft elements likely to be needed in a future treaty. Following discussion of all these elements, the committee mandated UNEP to develop a draft text of the comprehensive and suitable approach to mercury for consideration at its third session to be held in Africa in October 2011. This draft text is to be based upon the draft elements discussed in Chiba and will reflect views expressed their and as submitted by parties to the secretariat in writing by 25 March 2011.

Further Resources
Global Mercury Partnership
UNEP Harmful Substances