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

The EU's biggest use of mercury is in tooth amalgams or fillings. [Shutterstock]

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.

Earlier this month, Brazil became the 75th state to ratify the convention, following the European Union, which approved the treaty in May. The first mercury summit is scheduled for 24 September in Geneva.

The treaty means that all products that contain mercury must be phased out by 2020, except where signatories have requested a special five-year-long exemption. The convention also puts in place a number of control systems and training programmes for healthcare professionals.

Mercury attacks the central nervous system, accumulates in the body and can cause significant complications during pregnancy, as the brains of infants do not develop properly.

Around 70% of Germany’s mercury emissions come from its coal-fired power stations. New EU guidelines, in addition to demanding a reduction in nitric oxide emissions, also include the use of best available technologies for mercury pollution.

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By using active carbon systems and bromine purification, experts estimate that around 85% of mercury emissions could be reduced.

Coal-fired power stations contribute 24% of worldwide mercury emissions while metal manufacturing provides 18%. The largest share, 37%, is non-industrial gold production. Miners in poorer countries like Ghana, Mali and Mongolia use mercury to separate the precious metal from the rock.

According to the UN Environment Programme, millions of miners, many of them children, are thus putting their lives at risk.

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The EU 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.

In its follow-up to the convention’s ratification, the EU suggested that a total ban would be “disproportionate”, as dental filling costs would rise sharply and health insurance companies would be particularly affected.

Up to 8,900 tonnes of mercury can be emitted each year, either naturally through the weathering of mercury-laced rocks, forest fires and volcanic eruptions, or via man-made means.

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Mercury poisoning drew international attention thanks to Minamata city in Kumamoto prefecture, Japan, in 1956, where Minamata disease was first observed. It was caused by the release of methylmercury in the industrial wastewater a local chemical factory, which continued from 1932 to 1968. This highly toxic chemical bioaccumulated in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea, which, when eaten by the local populace, resulted in mercury poisoning.

Minamata disease is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Symptoms include ataxia, numbness in the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision, and damage to hearing and speech. In extreme cases, insanity, paralysis, coma, and death follow within weeks of the onset of symptoms. A congenital form of the disease can also affect foetuses in the womb.

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