GENEVA – More than 140 countries agreed Saturday on a groundbreaking treaty to rein in the use and emission of mercury, but environmental activists lamented it does not go far enough in preventing hazards to health.
The world’s first legally binding treaty on mercury was reached after a week of thorny talks and ends four years of heated discussions on how to cut global emission levels of the toxic heavy metal, which poses risks to human health and the environment.
“This was a herculean task . . . but we have succeeded,” Achim Steiner, U.N. undersecretary general and head of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), told reporters in Geneva.
The treaty has been named the Minamata Convention on Mercury, in honor of the town in Kumamoto Prefecture where inhabitants for decades have suffered the consequences of serious mercury contamination caused by the discharge of mercury-laced wastewater by a local chemical plant.
It will be signed in Minamata in October and will take effect once ratified by 50 countries — something organizers expect will take three to four years.
The draft document’s preamble notes the need to prevent future damage based on the lessons learned from Minamata disease, a clause proposed by the Japanese government. The disease, officially recognized in the 1950s, was caused by wastewater discharged by a plant operated by chemical maker Chisso Corp.
Mercury is found in products ranging from electrical switches, thermometers and light bulbs, to amalgam dental fillings and even facial creams. Large amounts of the heavy metal are released from small-scale gold mining, coal-burning power plants, metal smelters and cement production.
“It is quite remarkable how much mercury in a sense has entered into use in our lives. . . . We’ve been creating a terrible legacy,” Steiner said.
“Mercury accumulates in the food chain through fish. . . . It is released through coal-fired power stations and it travels sometimes thousands of kilometers. It affects the Inuit in Canada just as it affects the small-scale artisanal gold miner somewhere in southern Africa,” he said.
Serious mercury poisoning affects the body’s immune system and development of the brain and nervous system, posing the greatest risk to fetuses and infants.
The treaty sets a phaseout date of 2020 for a long line of products including mercury thermometers, blood pressure measuring devices, most batteries, switches, some kinds of fluorescent lamps and soaps and cosmetics.
It makes exceptions, however, for some large medical measuring devices where no mercury-free alternative exists.
In a controversial move, it also excluded vaccines that use mercury as a preservative. The risk from these vaccines is considered low, and for many developing nations, removing them would entail losing access to vaccines altogether.
The treaty also did not provide a cutoff date for the use of dental fillings using mercury amalgam, but did agree that the product should be phased down.
The text gives governments 15 years to end all mercury mining.
Many nongovernmental groups said the text fell short in addressing the greatest sources of mercury in the environment: artisanal small-scale gold mining — which directly threatens the health of the 10 million to 15 million people working in this field and contaminates water and air — and emissions from coal-burning power plants.
For small-scale gold-mining activities, using mercury will still be allowed, meaning imports and exports of the metal for this process will be legal, and governments will only be required to control the activity if they deem it more than insignificant.
Switzerland and Norway, which initiated the process a decade ago, along with Japan, pledged an initial $3 million to get things started.