UNEP mulls new mercury treaty

Kyodo News

Representatives of some 130 countries began discussions Monday at a gathering in Chiba on formulating the first U.N. comprehensive treaty for reducing mercury releases to protect human health and the environment.

About 600 participants, including government officials and members of nongovernmental organizations, will discuss a draft treaty presented last fall by the U.N. Environment Program, which basically prohibits exports of mercury and sales of products using it, during the meeting through Friday. UNEP aims to adopt the treaty in 2013.

The participants are expected to take part in the second session of the UNEP Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, which will hold five more through early 2013. The first was in June in Stockholm.

“In order to further promote measures to prevent mercury contamination around the world, our country will actively work toward formulating the treaty,” said Shoichi Kondo, senior vice environment minister, in his opening speech.

The draft treaty limits mercury exports to specific purposes and requires that exporters submit documents to, and obtain prior approval from, the importing countries. It also states the desire to cut the amount of mercury released into the environment, possibly to zero.

Japan has proposed to name the treaty after Minamata disease, a devastating neurological syndrome caused after a chemical maker dumped mercury-tainted water into the sea at its plant in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture.

But as the country remains an exporter of the poisonous chemical, it would have to make changes to its treatment and management of mercury if the discussions proceed along the line of the draft treaty.

Minamata Mayor Katsuaki Miyamoto, who also addressed the event, said disasters like the one that befell his city must “never occur again,” adding he feels the importance of widely spreading the message.

Sumiko Kaneko, 79, a Minamata disease patient who lost her husband and a son to the disease, spoke of her experience at the event, saying her two other sons are also ill. “I don’t want people to experience what I have gone through, ever,” she said.

Kaneko’s third son, in his 50s, contracted the disease while she was pregnant with him.