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United Nations Treaty On Mercury Pollution

Shift In U.S. Policy Clears The Way

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Updated January 20, 2013

The United States and more than 139 other nations have agreed to a treaty that will attempt to limit mercury pollution. The agreement is a hard-won victory for the United Nations, which has been after such a deal for most of a decade. The U.N. made the announcement January 19, 2013.

The U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP) presided over the negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland. UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said the negotiations were "complex and often all-night sessions."

The agreement is called the Minamata Convention on Mercury. It takes its name from a Japanese city whose people suffered severe health complications from mercury pollution. Minamata also lends its name to the neurological disorder that comes from mercury poisoning. In the 1950s, Minamata industrial plants released mercury in their waste water, ultimately killing or crippling hundreds of people.

Minamata will also be the site of the convention signing ceremony in October 2013. The treaty needs 50 signatories to go into effect. The U.N. expects certain passage of the agreement.

The Trouble With Mercury

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that cannot be created or destroyed. In its purest form it is a silvery liquid, thus mercury's other name -- quicksilver. Mercury was used in most old thermometers (the red or silver liquid that rose in a tube as the temperature rose), electrical switches, batteries, and light bulbs.

Burning coal also releases mercury, making coal-fired energy plants the largest contributors to mercury pollution. Airborne mercury ultimately settles into water systems or onto the ground to wash into waterways. Biochemical reactions can change it into methylmercury, an even more toxic form of the element, which builds up in fish.

A recent study from the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine suggests that an incredible 84% of all fish have unsafe levels of mercury. Tuna and swordfish are the most susceptible, although other fish may contain it.

Gold miners have also used mercury for centuries to separate gold from ore. Waste mercury from the process usually ended up on the ground or in a nearby water supply. Fish in the Sacramento and San Francisco areas of California long exhibited elevated levels of mercury after 19th-century gold rushes. Mercury used in mining has diminished in the U.S. over the last forty years, but miners in other areas, especially South America, still use it.

Mercury poisoning can cause damage to the brain, kidneys, and neurological and digestive systems. It can cause memory loss, speech impairment, and it can inhibit motor skills.

Steiner said, "Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva, in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come. I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible."

What Will The Treaty Do?

The treaty seeks to limit mercury pollution by reducing emissions from mining and industrial processes. It also binds signatories to limit the production and trade of mercury-containing products such as batteries (except for those in "implantable" medical devices), switches, compact fluorescent lamps, cathode fluorescent lamps, soaps, and cosmetics. The U.N. said "vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative" are excluded from the treaty, as are products used in "religious or traditional activities."

Some say that, while the convention is a beginning, it does not go far enough. For example, it does not require that signatory nations set up mercury reduction plans and assessment criteria.

U.S. Stance On Mercury Pollution

A shift in U.S. policy in the Obama Administration enabled completion of the Minamata Convention. The George W. Bush Administration chose to lessen Bill Clinton-era mercury pollution suggestions in favor of cap-and-trade regulations that did little to move industry toward significant pollution reduction. Bush also opposed such a global initiative as the Minamata Convention.

In Febrary 2009, Obama reversed that stance. American delegates to the UNEP meeting Nairobi that year endorsed the start of the negotiations that led to the Minamata Convention.

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