Treaty on mercury restriction criticised

Tue, Jan 22, 2013, 00:00

A new global regime to limit the use of mercury has been criticised by the European Environmental Bureau for not going far enough or fast enough to address the “spiralling human health risks” of exposure to this toxic substance.

Although adoption of the agreement in Geneva at the weekend is seen as a step forward, Michael Bender, joint co-ordinator of the bureau’s Zero Mercury Working Group, said it was “hampered by weak controls on mercury emissions from major sources like coal-fired power plants”. But the treaty had its “bright spots”, including provisions to reduce trade in mercury, prohibit the primary mining of mercury and phase out the toxic element in products that contain mercury, such as batteries, energy-saving lightbulbs and thermometers.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury – named after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred after mercury pollution in the last century – provides controls across products, processes and industries where mercury is used.

‘Notorious heavy metal’

The UN Environment Programme described mercury as a “notorious heavy metal” that had significant health and environmental effects, including brain and neurological damage in children, and kidney and digestive system harm in adults.

The treaty will be open for signature at a meeting in Japan in October. Funding to fast-track action until it comes into force has been pledged by Japan, Norway and Switzerland. Unep executive director Achim Steiner said it “laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognised for well over a century”.