Mercury trade on the up despite new UN treaty

Hopefully a sign of the future: the Almadén Mining Park, Spain, a mercury mine that closed in 2003 and is now a museum and UNESCO site. [Shutterstock]

Mercury mining has skyrocketed in the last five years, according to a new UN report, despite efforts to reduce supply.

Last week, the first Minamata Convention on Mercury conference was held in Geneva, where countries reaffirmed their commitments to curbing production.

The Minamata Convention is intended to safeguard public health and the environment by gradually reducing the demand for the poisonous metal, which should largely be phased out by 2020, with a number of exceptions and derogations attached.

But a new report by the United Nations has warned that mercury mining has increased significantly, despite the Convention coming into force in summer 2017.

Much of the world’s mercury production is used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), where the metal is added to gold-containing ore in order to extract the precious metal. ASGM is also the world’s number one source of mercury pollution.

The UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Mercury Supply, Trade and Demand report revealed that Kenya, where UNEP is based, and South Africa are the main supply hubs for mercury used in ASGM, which is commonplace in east and central Africa.

Mercury's time is up as international treaty comes into force

The Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty that bans the manufacture and trade in mercury products after 2020, entered into force on 16 August, four years after it was first signed. EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.

Under the Convention, countries are obligated to monitor and reduce the trade in mercury but the signatories currently do not have reliable information about trade with their neighbours and within their regions.

For example, the UNEP report showed that “Kenya did not register any exports during 2010-15 period”, but it also added that data from the gold fields of Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo shows that their mercury mainly came from Nairobi.

Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, project manager of the Zero Mercury Campaign at the European Environmental Bureau, said: “Informal trade is difficult to track, and therefore does not appear in the official trade statistics. With timely reporting, parties can better understand mercury flows in order to better enforce trade restrictions in the Convention.”

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Signing parties to the Convention are also bound to phase out existing mercury mines and prevent new operations from opening. But a global shortage at the beginning of the decade and recent shocks to the market have led to price spikes and new mines opening in Mexico and Indonesia.

Satish Sinha, associate director at Toxics Link in India, said: “The emergence over the past five years of new small-scale producers of mercury in Mexico and Indonesia has made a difficult situation worse. Between these two countries alone, around 1,000 tonnes are produced annually.”

UNEP’s report admitted that it may be difficult to phase out mining activities of this nature and disrupt the social structure that grows up around them when local communities become accustomed to the economic benefits they bring.

At the first sitting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention, which started on 24 September, the international community pledged once again to tackle mercury trade and production.

Curbing mercury production is essential to protecting human health because of the significant health risks posed by exposure to the metal.

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The dangers were first confirmed in the late 1960s when Minamata disease was discovered in the small Japanese fishing village of the same name. Thousands of children have since been born with various forms of disabilities after their mothers ate fish that had ingested mercury pollution from a nearby factory.

One of the victims, Shinobu Sakamoto, 61, spoke at the meeting, 45 years after travelling to Stockholm to share the plight of her community with the Conference on the Human Environment. That summit in 1972 is seen as the first real stepping stone that led to the signing of the Convention in 2013.

During an eight-minute speech, Sakamoto told the delegates: “Please do not allow pollution to occur. Please protect women and children. Let’s (eradicate mercury pollution) together.”

The European Union is responsible for 4.5% of global mercury emissions, while its citizens are most at risk from eating tuna, which can be heavily polluted by mercury. Mercury is also commonly used in dentistry, where it is used to bind together fillings.

UNEP’s report did reveal that the amount of chlor-alkali residual mercury, used in various industrial processes, available on the market has reduced significantly since 2011, largely due to export bans. In the EU, that has taken an estimated 650 tonnes of the material off the market.