Photo: UNEP

Last Thursday, the United Nations launched a groundbreaking treaty—the Minamata Convention—designed to limit mercury pollution internationally.  The treaty was signed by delegates of 140 nations after four years of negotiations, and will regulate the use of mercury in certain products and industrial processes.

The Minamata convention was named for a city in Japan where severe mercury poisoning caused thousands of illnesses and deaths in the mid-20th century. Mercury is a highly toxic metal which can cause severe damage to the nervous, digestive, and immune systems.  It is released into the environment through a number of industrial processes, and circulates through water, air, and living organisms.  Prolonged exposure to the metal can be fatal.

Earlier this year, the UN Environment Programme published a report addressing the growing health and environmental risks of mercury use in developing nations.  The Minamata Convention will help protect the environment and people’s health by regulating the supply and trade of mercury, reducing mercury emissions, banning primary mining of the metal, and decreasing the use of mercury in certain products such as light bulbs, batteries, and medical devices.  It also includes pinpointing populations at risk, boosting medical care and better training of health care professionals in identifying and treating mercury-related effects.

The Minamata Convention is a landmark agreement that will set the stage for future action against the use of mercury, but there is still a lot of work to be done.  UN data has shown that small-scale mining and coal burning are the main reasons for the recent rise in mercury emissions, and many communities in Peru are highly exposed to mercury due to the use of the toxic metal in gold mining.  Pregnant women and young children are especially vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of mercury, which can cause permanent damage.

Although the Minamata Convention suggests that measures be taken to reduce the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, no specific targets or dates were set.  As long as the use of mercury for gold mining is legal, the health of the environment and local communities continue to be at risk.