Representatives from more than 140 nations approved at the beginning of the year a new treaty to reduce the use and release of mercury worldwide and minimise its negative effects on the environment and human health. But what does this agreement exactly mean?
Mercury is present in lots of everyday products sold everywhere, yet it is an invisible neurotoxin that can be deadly.
Most people are aware that it has traditionally been found in thermometers and batteries. However, mercury has been mined since the time of the Romans and there are more than 3,000 different ways of using this heavy metal — in industry, agriculture and even medicine. The fact that it is so widely used does not mean it is safe, though.
Mercury is one of the most toxic heavy metals and its use can have a serious impact on both the environment and human health.
Released to the atmosphere, as a result of fossil fuel combustion, mining activity or waste management, it contaminates our marine ecosystems and the species that live in them. And if we eat those species — like tuna —, mercury also enters our food chain . As a result, mercury exposure can cause permanent damage to brain, kidneys and foetuses, and is particularly harmful to children and unborn babies, because their nervous systems are still developing, and to those who eat a lot of predatory fish.
In the long term, mercury poses risks for the environment and world’s population . That’s because it can travel long distances through the atmosphere and the water, and can persist in the environment for a long time since it cannot be broken down into harmless substances. The United Nations estimates that around 1,960 tonnes of mercury are released each year — although the amount could be double that due to high uncertainty of estimates from some countries —; 60 per cent of those releases are believed to be re-emissions from previous emission that have already accumulated mercury on land and water.
After four years of negotiations, the treaty recently approved by United Nations is the first legally binding agreement to reduce pollution caused by this heavy metal. However, the need for tighter regulations on mercury has been on the agenda of social and environmental organisations for a longer time. According to Zero Mercury Working Group — which includes over 90 organisations from 52 countries —, this treaty is a major accomplishment, but not nearly enough to completely eliminate emissions, demand and supply of mercury worldwide. We have spoken to its international coordinators, Elena Lymberidi-Settimo and Michael Bender.
Before we talk about the new treaty, what is the situation at the moment in terms of the presence of mercury in our daily lives?
ZMWG. Europe has made considerable progress in addressing the European and global challenges of mercury since it launched the EU mercury strategy in 2005. For example, European citizens cannot purchase mercury thermometers containing mercury any more. Most types of batteries also do not include mercury any more. Furthermore, the surplus mercury which is no longer used within the chlor-alkali industry has to go for definite disposal and can therefore not be reintroduced on the market. Environmental quality standards for water have been set including for mercury, and energy saving lamps on the market contain now much less mercury than they used to. Mercury emissions from waste incinerators are also controlled.
However, there are still areas such as emissions from coal fire power plants where no legislation is foreseen and where whatever controls on mercury emissions only occur as a co-benefit from measures taken on other pollutants. As a result, the prevalence of mercury in fish is expected to continue to persist since mercury built up on such organisms is caused from general emissions — in Europe and globally —, through deposition, which could still take many more years until significant reductions occur.
So, there are substitutes to mercury…
ZMWG. Indeed there are viable, available, affordable, effective mercury free alternatives both for most all products and processes. To name a few, measuring devices such as thermometers and shpygmomanometers — a device used to measure blood pressure — are now digital and therefore do not contain mercury per se; instead of dental amalgam use in dentistry, composites or other materials can be used; energy efficient lamps manufacturers have improved their dosing techniques to reduce mercury content, and at the same time LED technology which does not contain mercury is advancing fast.
On your mission statement, ZMWG says it aims to support the adoption of a legally binding instrument to reduce the use of mercury. Now there is a binding agreement. What are its positive points?
ZMWG. There are many bright spots in the treaty. These include provisions to reduce trade, prohibit the primary mining of mercury, and phase out the toxic element in most products containing mercury, including in measuring devices (i.e. thermometers), batteries, pesticides, and cosmetics. Maximum mercury levels are also set for energy efficient lamps and phase down measures requested to be taken with respect to reducing mercury use in dentistry. Furthermore, mercury waste management and storage of mercury is to take place in an environmentally safe manner. Some of these steps were unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Now, alternatives exist for most all products containing mercury and the treaty sends the right market signal on phasing out mercury use in products.
In addition, the treaty includes a financial mechanism, which is also linked to compliance, to ensure that adequate resources are in place to assist in its effective implementation by developing countries.
In sum, all of these steps will eventually lead to less mercury exposures worldwide. The new mercury treaty, in spite of its flaws, presents a real breakthrough and a tremendous opportunity now to work towards significant reduction of mercury globally.
What are those flaws?
ZMWG. The new treaty is a mixture of mandatory and voluntary elements intended to control the burgeoning global mercury crisis. While heading in the right direction, in our view the treaty is neither reaching far enough nor fast enough to reduce mercury pollution globally and address the spiraling human health risks from mercury exposure. For example the instrument is hampered by weak controls on mercury emissions from major sources like coal-fired power plants, as well as those concerning artisanal and small scale gold mining.
What should be the next steps?
ZMWG. Close follow up of the development of the treaty will be important, since some areas would need further guidance to be implemented and others could be revised in the near future, like the development of technical guidelines on safe interim and final storage of mercury waste. However, it is also really important that work on the ground continue while countries are preparing for ratification and entry into force of the convention. Actions during this interim period to promote mercury reduction are of major importance to avoid wasting time and losing momentum.
In fact, this treaty has still to be signed at the end of the year in Japan. Are you optimistic about this? Do you think countries will commit to this global agreement?
ZMWG. Given the growing international commitment to reducing mercury exposure by governments globally over the past decade, we are very optimistic that countries will commit to signing the agreement in Minamata (Japan), in October. After that, our goal is to promote ratification of the treaty by 50 countries as quickly as possible and hopefully within the next 2 to 3 years. Once that occurs, it’s expected that additional funding will be made available by the EU and other countries to foster treaty implementation in developing countries. We note that 3 countries (Japan, Norway and Switzerland) have already donated around 1 million dollars each to jump-start the work in the interim period, and we plan to encourage more countries to provide support. At the same time, we plan on continuing to support countries to develop plans and actions to reduce mercury use, release and exposure to mercury.