Groundbreaking treaty on toxic mercury to be formally adopted this week

Backbencher October 9, 2013 0
Groundbreaking treaty on toxic mercury to be formally adopted this week

Bryony Clarke reports on the circumstances behind the adoption of the Minamata Convention.

During the early 1950s, the inhabitants of the Japanese fishing town, Minamata, were unnerved by a series of disturbing and inexplicable occurrences. Dead fish and other sea creatures were continually being washed up in Minamata Bay. Seabirds were losing their ability to fly and cats were dying off, many from convulsions that locals called “the dancing disease.” An outbreak of an unknown neurological illness was reported among the area’s fishing families and the mysterious ailment was attributed to contaminated seafood. In 1957 scientists gave the condition a name: Minamata disease.

The responsible contaminant was eventually identified as methylmercury, an environmental toxicant that had been discharged in wastewater from a local chemical factory owned by the Chisso Corporation. But the government did little to stop Chisso’s industrial poisoning or to discourage people from eating fish, and only acknowledged the plant’s role in causing Minamata disease in 1968.

The Minamata Disaster was one of the worst mercury poisoning incidents in history and its ramifications are still being felt today.  At the most conservative estimate 1,700 people died, and the real figure is believed to be far higher. In addition, tens of thousands more suffered life-long disability, including brain damage, intellectual disabilities and birth defects.  Minamata drew the world’s attention to the devastating effects of mercury, a powerful neurotoxicant now known to be particularly dangerous to foetuses, infants and young children.

Minamata drew the world’s attention to the devastating effects of mercury, a powerful neurotoxicant now known to be particularly dangerous to foetuses, infants and young children.

This week, a UN conference to sign a historic treaty aimed at curbing the use and emission of mercury begins in Kumamoto, near Minamata.  The treaty, fittingly named the Minamata Convention, will be presented for adoption and opened for signature at the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the 9 – 11 October 2013.

The convention was negotiated over more than three years under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the final text of the treaty was agreed upon in January 2013. It includes both mandatory and voluntary measures to control mercury emissions from various sources, to phase the element out of certain products/industrial processes and to restrict its trade. Delegates from some 140 countries and regions are scheduled to attend the five-day conference, and the treaty is expected to be unanimously adopted on Thursday.

The Minamata Convention will take effect once ratified by 50 countries – something organisers anticipate will take three to four years.

Human activities are estimated to have released 1,960 metric tons of mercury into the atmosphere and at least 1,000 metric tons into the water in 2010, according to a 2013 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Today, the largest source of atmospheric mercury pollution is artisanal and small-scale gold mining, which accounts for more than a third of global emissions. Small, often temporary mining operations have proliferated across Asia, Africa and Latin America as the price of gold has rapidly increased. An estimated 10 to 15 million people worldwide are regularly exposed to the toxic effects of mercury in the gold-mining industry, and Human Rights Watch research has documented the use of mercury by children in Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, and Papua New Guinea.

An estimated 10 to 15 million people worldwide are regularly exposed to the toxic effects of mercury in the gold-mining industry…

Governments who sign and ratify the convention will be legally obligated to reduce mercury use and exposure. They will also be committed to protect the health of small-scale mining communities by gathering health data, training health-care workers, and raising awareness of the dangers of mercury through health facilities.

“People around the world are being harmed by mercury right now,” explains Juliane Kippenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.  “This treaty will help protect both the environment and people’s right to health.” The organisation is urging governments around the world to immediately sign the Minamata Convention, and take the necessary steps to ensure their parliaments can ratify the treaty as soon as possible.

Bryony is a recent literature graduate and news junkie who has previously written for the Cambridge Student, the New Political Centre and the Independent.

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