First Convention on Mercury Control Now in Force

"The Minamata Convention shows that our global work to protect our planet and its people can continue to bring nations together. We did it for the ozone layer and now we're doing it for mercury, just as we need to do it for climate change – a cause that the Minamata Convention will also serve. Together, we can clean up our act," said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.

The world's first Convention to protect the environment and human health in almost a decade, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, entered into force on Aug. 16, committing its 74 Parties to reducing the risks to human health and the environment from the harmful release of mercury and mercury compounds. Mercury is recognized as particularly harmful to unborn children and infants.

Governments that are party to the convention are now legally bound to take a range of measures to protect human health and the environment by addressing mercury throughout its life cycle, including banning new mercury mines and phasing out existing ones and regulating the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, manufacturing processes, and the production of everyday items such as cosmetics, light bulbs, batteries, and teeth fillings. The convention also seeks to reduce emissions as side effects from other industrial processes, such as coal-fired power stations, waste incineration, cement clinker production, and it contains measures on the interim storage of mercury, on mercury waste, and on actions to reduce the risks of contaminated sites.

"The Minamata Convention shows that our global work to protect our planet and its people can continue to bring nations together. We did it for the ozone layer and now we're doing it for mercury, just as we need to do it for climate change – a cause that the Minamata Convention will also serve. Together, we can clean up our act," said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.

Unborn children and babies are the most vulnerable, along with populations who eat fish contaminated with mercury, those who use mercury at work, and people who live near a source of mercury pollution or in colder climates, where dangerous heavy metal tends to accumulate, according to UNEP. A 2017 study comparing mercury levels among women of child-bearing age in the Asia and Pacific regions revealed high traces of mercury in 96 percent of the women tested from Pacific communities who have high fish diets.

"As part of the Financial Mechanism of the Convention, the Global Environment Facility has been charged with raising and disbursing grants for projects and programs to reduce and eliminate mercury pollution. On behalf of the GEF, I am delighted to join others in the international community and celebrate the entry into force of the Minamata Convention on Mercury. It is an honor for the Global Environment Facility to be tasked with providing grants for projects and programs to reduce and eliminate the use of mercury. We are ready to continue to help countries conducting inventories, implementation plans, and investments in technology to make mercury history," said Naoko Ishii, GEF CEO and chairperson.

UNEP reports up to 8,900 tonnes of mercury are emitted each year. Mercury can be released naturally through the weathering of mercury-containing rocks, forest fires, and volcanic eruptions, but significant emissions also come from human processes, particularly coal burning and artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Mining alone exposes up to 15 million workers in 70 different countries to mercury poisoning, including child laborers.

Signed by 128 countries, the convention takes its name from the most severe mercury poisoning disaster in history, which came to light in Minamata, Japan, in May 1956 after sustained dumping of industrial wastewaters into Minamata Bay, beginning in the 1930s. Local villages who ate fish and shellfish from the bay started suffering convulsions, psychosis, loss of consciousness, and coma. Thousands of people were certified as having directly suffered from mercury poisoning, now known as Minamata disease.

The first meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury (COP1) will take place Sept. 24-29 in Geneva, Switzerland. Visit mercuryconvention.org for details.

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