A new study has revealed that mercury pollution is more widespread across the world than previously thought, even among high-level ministers and delegates, as a new UN treaty struggles to get to grips with what experts call “an immediate threat to everyone”.
The UN’s Minamata Convention entered into force in August and the first international summit on the issue was held in Geneva in September. At that meeting, delegates from around the world, including environment ministers, were tested for mercury contamination: the results were shocking.
Analysis showed that mercury levels were above the threshold considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in more than a half of the attendants who participated. Hair samples were taken from 180 officials hailing from 75 countries.
IPEN, a Swedish association that aims to establish safe chemical policies, carried out the research and discovered that mercury was found in all the delegates.
More than 50% exceeded EPA’s 1 parts per million threshold. Levels above this expose people to the threat of brain and cardiovascular damage, while the most potent harm can be done to unborn children.
The mean average of mercury levels found in delegates from Western Europe exceeded 1 ppm, while officials from the Asia Pacific region and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) had levels of 2 ppm and 3 ppm, respectively.
Mercury expert Lee Bell, who authored the study for IPEN, warned that “delegates, as a group, are well informed about mercury toxicity and exposure but this knowledge has not afforded them protection from mercury pollution.”
He added that “these results should provide an unequivocal reminder to global decision-makers that mercury pollution is an immediate threat to everyone” and called for a phaseout of coal-fired power plants and a ban on mercury destined for small-scale gold mining.
One of the people sampled was Swedish Environment Minister Karolina Skog, who admitted that “the delegate sampling of mercury in hair personalised a global issue for us. As women, mercury can affect not our own health but if we are to become pregnant, the mercury can transfer to the unborn child.”
The minister added that “the Minamata Convention gives us the tools. Now, let’s all work together for the implementation.”
Peru’s Vice-Minister for the environment, Marcos Alegre Chang, was pleased that his own test results were within the safe limit but acknowledged that the Convention should allow his own country to “minimise and eliminate” its use in the artisanal gold mining industry.
Alexander Teabro, the environment minister of the island nation of Kiribati, warned that “Pacific SIDS do not contribute to global mercury pollution but we are affected by the impacts of global deposition to oceans of mercury vapour from coal power plants”, calling on UN nations to phase them out.
Coal-fired stations are estimated to contribute 24% of worldwide emissions while metal manufacturing provides 18%. The largest share, 37%, is caused by non-industrial gold mining, where workers use the metal to separate gold from the surrounding rock.
Mercury is particularly problematic when it gets into the food chain because it gradually builds up and reaches extremely toxic levels. SIDS are especially vulnerable due to their reliance on fish as a part of their diet.
The Minamata Convention itself is named after a small Japanese fishing village, which was severely affected by mercury pollution from a local factory. Hundreds of children were born with significant deformities as a result and the effects are still taking a toll on the community.
Shinobu Sakamoto, who was born disabled as a result of in utero mercury poisoning, issued a new plea at the UN’s environment assembly in Kenya this week, saying “many people are still suffering and struggling from pollution. Today, I must repeat my message: Minamata disease is not over.”
Sakamoto has been a symbol of the fight to rid the planet of mercury poisoning since her 1972 speech in front of UN delegates at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment drew attention to her community’s plight.
It took several decades for the Convention to come into force, even though Minamata disease was first recognised in the late 1950s. The treaty’s capacity to curb mercury pollution has already been questioned due to a lack of data available in the countries where the issue is most pronounced.
A treaty without teeth?
Under the treaty, signatories have committed to phasing out all mercury-containing products by 2020, except where countries have requested special five-year derogations.
One of the most obvious uses of mercury, particularly in the developed world, is in teeth amalgams or fillings. The European Union, which provides 4.5% of emissions, previously suggested that a full ban would be “disproportionate” as costs would allegedly rise significantly.
This week, a coalition of health and environment NGOs, called on the EU to rethink this approach, insisting that mercury in dentistry is “easily replaceable”.
The group, which counts the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and Health Care Without Harm among its ranks, urged the European Commission to follow up on its July ban on amalgams for children under 15, with a full ban by 2022.
Under new rules adopted this year, the EU will also ban mercury fillings for pregnant and breastfeeding women as of July next year, and require member states to come up with national plans on phasing out their use in dentistry.
In 2020, the Commission will be obligated to make a recommendation on whether to phase out amalgam entirely, based on these reports.
At the UN’s annual environment summit in Kenya, geared towards the worst forms of pollution, delegates have been offered the chance to be tested for lead contamination, with results expected once the summit closes on Wednesday (6 December).