Targeting the use of mercury

More than 140 countries negotiating in Geneva on Jan. 19 agreed on a treaty to limit emissions and releases of mercury, which can cause serious environmental pollution and health hazards. This treaty represents the first step in global efforts to prevent environmental and health damage from mercury.

It was named the Minamata Convention on Mercury after the city in Kumamoto Prefecture where wastewater containing methyl-mercury was released by Chisso Corp.’s chemical factory into the sea, causing dreadful birth and neurological defects among thousands of people.

Minamata disease, discovered in 1956, showed governments and people around the world that mercury pollution causes serious and irreparable health damage.

Apart from the treaty, the Japanese government has a great responsibility to provide adequate relief to Minamata disease sufferers who have not yet been officially recognized as victims of the disease and to make concrete international contributions to have the treaty go into force at an early date and produce results in minimizing releases of mercury.

The treaty in principle prohibits imports and exports of mercury. Signatory countries must stop production and exports and imports of thermometers and batteries containing mercury and fluorescent lights containing a certain amount of mercury by 2020 in principle.

The use of mercury in the production of acetaldehyde must be halted by 2018. The mercury that Chisso Corp. dumped into Minamata Bay several decades ago was used for this purpose.

During treaty negotiations, Japan insisted on including in the preamble the principle of “polluters pay” — under which polluters would be obliged to compensate victims and restore polluted environments to their original state.

Japan’s request was rejected. As developing countries fear that restricting mercury use will hamper economic growth, the treaty contains many abstract provisions and nonbinding calls for action.

An international conference will be held in Kumamoto and Minamata on Oct. 9-11 to sign and adopt the treaty. Fifty countries must ratify it for it to go into force.

The treaty’s name should remind governments and people that the Minamata disease tragedy must not be repeated. But some associations of Minamata disease sufferers and environmental activists opposed naming it the Minamata Convention on Mercury because they think it may give the impression that Minamata disease-related problems have been fully resolved.

These associations may have a point as the Japanese government has attempted to trivialize the tragedy by limiting the number of officially recognized victims.

Apart from contributions to the World Bank’s endowment fund, Japan said that it will provide $1 million to developing countries before the treaty goes into effect. Norway and Switzerland also made similar announcements.

This is a welcome move. Japan, which is now exporting about 100 tons of mercury a year, must show an example by ending its use and export of mercury and by helping developing countries likewise curtail their production and use of this toxic metal.