US shift spurs on global mercury pollution deal

Thanks to a dramatic shift in the position of the United States, environmental ministers from over 140 countries agreed to begin negotiating a treaty to control global mercury pollution last week at a meeting of the UN Governing Council in Nairobi, Kenya.

US President Barack Obama’s administration supports the creation of a legally binding document to control mercury pollution, in contrast with the Bush administration, which had stubbornly refused to enter into any agreement. 

Green groups, including the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and the Zero Mercury Working Group, praised this agreement as a “breakthrough”. 

“The treaty will ensure that the EU and other countries of the world make a serious commitment to reduce global mercury emissions, supply and demand,” claimed Elena Lymberidi, coordinator of the EEB’s ‘Zero Mercury’ campaign

Eurochlor, which represents EU and EFTA chlor-alkali producers, also claimed to “support efforts through the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to protect the environment and public health,” welcoming “enhanced efforts by the global community to reduce releases of mercury”. 

The industry association stated that the agreement to negotiate a treaty is in line with its “long-standing commitment to share best practices globally for reducing the use and emissions of mercury from mercury-cell chlor-alkali facilities”.  

The chlor-alkali industry is known for using the mercury cell process, during which mercury is used to support chemical reactions that produce chlorine and caustic soda. 

The treaty aims to reduce the supply of mercury, minimise its use in products and processes and lower atmospheric mercury emissions. 

To achieve this, participants in the UN gathering agreed to “enhance the capacity for the environmental storage [of mercury]”. 

This is likely to translate into a major reduction of human exposure to mercury, as the US is responsible for 40% of mercury emissions

The agreement follows the adoption of an EU regulation to ban all exports of mercury from the EU in 2011 (EURACTIV 25/09/08). 

A working group will be set up by the second half of 2009 to discuss the negotiating priorities and timetable of the intergovernmental negotiating committee.


The United States and the EU are together responsible for 40 to 50% of the annual global trade in mercury. 

Mercury is a chemical element used mainly in industrial processes, including combustion in coal-fired power plants, gold and cement production and waste disposal. These processes are known for inadvertently emitting mercury into the environment. Fish easily absorb it, because they have a natural tendency to concentrate mercury in their bodies. 

This poses many health risks, as the ingestion of mercury can impair cognitive skills, weaken the nervous system and interfere with circulation. 

Pregnant women and babies are most vulnerable to such risks, because mercury can irreversibly damage the development of the nervous system. 

In a bid to reduce mercury pollution, the EU adopted a regulation to ban mercury exports from 2011. 

Green groups have called for mercury pollution to be controlled at global level, but these appeals were ignored by the Bush administration, which has been reluctant to enter into any kind of legal obligations on the matter. 

The US position was reversed by the administration of President Barack Obama, which supports the creation of a legally binding document to control mercury pollution.

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