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International treaty on curbing mercury pollution enters into force

Kyodo

An international treaty to protect human health and the environment from mercury pollution entered into force Wednesday, paving the way for regulation of the manufacture, trading, use and disposal of the chemical.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury, taking its name from the city in Kumamoto Prefecture where industrial emissions over half a century ago caused mercury poisoning in thousands of people, recognizes the “substantial” lessons from the disaster and the need to prevent such an event in the future.

Describing mercury as “a chemical of global concern,” the convention’s aim is to cut emissions and release of mercury into the air, water and land, and to establish protocols for storage and disposal.

It also regulates exports of the chemical and seeks to ban by 2020 the manufacture, import or export of mercury-containing products such as thermometers and batteries.

The first conference of signatory states will be held in Geneva on Sept. 24 to 29 to discuss ways to secure the steady implementation of the convention, including how to report data on mercury.

A survivor of Minamata disease, Shinobu Sakamoto, will also attend the conference to speak about her life and issues faced by survivors.

“I would like to tell the conference that Minamata disease is not over yet. I hope the issue will be discussed among a variety of countries,” Sakamoto said at a news conference Wednesday in Minamata.

Sakamoto, exposed to the poison wile a fetus, suffers from headaches and cannot walk without assistance or a walker. Despite the hardship, she has decided to attend the conference because she wants to do all she can to prevent future victims.

In June 1972, at the age of 15, Sakamoto attended an international conference in Stockholm that was held alongside a United Nations Conference on the environment. She used the opportunity to convey the damage caused by mercury poisoning.

“The enforcement (of the treaty) is just the beginning and only Ms. Sakamoto can breathe life into it,” said Yoichi Tani, director of the Collaboration Center for Minamata Disease Victims, at the news conference.

“I think it will take some time to tighten regulations. It is necessary to keep voicing our views from Minamata,” Tani said. He will accompany Sakamoto to the conference in Switzerland.

Japan joined the convention in 2016 after its adoption at a 2013 U.N.-led conference in Kumamoto. In May this year, Romania became the 50th party to the convention, clearing the threshold for its entry into force.

Minamata disease is one of Japan’s worst cases of pollution-caused illness. The disease, which causes paralysis through damage to the central nervous system and also birth defects, was caused by mercury-tainted water being dumped into Minamata Bay by chemical maker Chisso Corp.

The Japanese government officially recognized the disease in 1956.