After protracted negotiations that spanned almost half a decade more than 140 countries have signed on to the world’s first legally binding international agreement to control mercury emissions. The agreement puts in place rules that limit mercury emissions from power plants and industrial boilers as well as certain kinds of smelters handling metals like zinc and gold. The treaty phases out mercury laden products, like batteries and thermometers as well as certain types of fluorescent lamps, soaps and cosmetics. The agreement also establishes rules for direct mining of mercury and addresses safe storage of mercury waste.
The treaty sets mercury reduction targets on a range of products, processes and industries. The agreement provides clear guidelines for industry and will reduce mercury emissions which are a known threat to human health.
“Mercury has been known as a toxin and a hazard for centuries-but today we have many of the alternative technologies and processes needed to reduce the risks for tens of millions of people, including pregnant mothers and their babies. A good outcome can also assist in a more sustainable future for generations to come,” said United Nations Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.
In small-scale gold mining for example there are now mercury-free methods and other low-cost solutions for reducing emissions.
The new agreement will ban the production, export and import of a range of mercury-containing products. Nations that have small-scale gold mining operations, (a leading cause of mercury contamination) will be required to draw up national plans to limit mercury emissions.
This agreement will reduce cases of neurological and behavioral disorders, and other health problems linked to mercury, as well as the contamination of soils and rivers caused by man-made emissions of the metal.
The treaty will be signed at a special meeting in Japan this October and it will come into force in 2020. In the interim Japan, Norway and Switzerland have pledged funds to fast-track action.
Because of the long life of mercury, once released it can remain in the environment for centuries. This means that it is likely to be several years or decades before reductions in mercury emissions have a demonstrable effect on mercury levels in nature and the food chain.
© 2013, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.
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