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Nations Strike Mercury Deal

Pollution: International treaty aims to cut use, releases of neurotoxic metal

by Britt E. Erickson
January 25, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 4

Credit: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
Photo of Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director addresses a press conference on January 10, 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya, where he said that mercury, which exists in various forms remains a global threat to human health and the environment.
Credit: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

After four years of negotiations, more than 140 countries, including the U.S., have agreed on a set of legally binding rules to control mercury pollution. The treaty was finalized on Jan. 19 at the end of a six-day meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Geneva. It is the first global effort aimed at reducing the use of mercury in a range of products, processes, and industries.

The “complex and often all-night sessions” in Geneva “laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized for well over a century,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said at the close of the meeting. But environmental groups said the agreement did not go far enough.

Called the Minamata Convention on Mercury, after a city in Japan that endured one of the world’s worst cases of industrial mercury poisoning, the treaty will require coal-fired power plants, industrial boilers, and other large industrial facilities to control mercury emissions using the best available technology. The treaty officially goes into force once 50 countries have ratified it, and new facilities will have five years after that to comply with the rules. Existing facilities will have 10 years.

The treaty will also ban by 2020 the use of mercury in many products, including batteries, switches, some compact fluorescent lamps, soaps and cosmetics, and thermometers. Mercury in dental amalgams will be “phased down.” Mercury-based preservatives used in vaccines, however, are exempt from the treaty.

The agreement is being hailed as a victory by government and industry officials. But some environmental groups say it will do little to reduce mercury pollution.

“If implemented, the new mercury treaty might slow the rate of increasing mercury levels, but greater political commitment will be needed to actually reduce mercury pollution,” says Joe DiGangi, senior science and technical adviser for the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), a global network of nongovernmental organizations working to reduce persistent organic pollutants.

IPEN and other environmental groups are criticizing the treaty for stopping short of banning the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Such mining practices have surpassed coal-fired power plants as the largest source of mercury emissions to air, according to a UNEP report released in the run-up to the meeting.



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