A trader in Mali shows a sachet of mercury he sells to artisanal gold miners.

© 2011 Juliane Kippenberg/Human Rights Watch

Mercury is an ancient metal rich in history, cloaked with mystery and power. It is liquid at room temperature, with a beautiful silver hue. The metal is used in industrial production, in medical and cosmetic products, and in small-scale gold mining.

Mercury is also highly toxic. It attacks the central nervous system and other body functions, and is particularly harmful to children. Japan has been the scene of one of the worst mercury poisoning cases in history, the Minamata disaster, half a  century ago. Industrial pollution from a chemical factory polluted Minamata bay killed over 1,700 people and caused lifelong disability for many more. The government has recognized some 3,000 patients as Minamata disease victims, though many victims’ groups and experts believe the real number is far higher. 

Today, mercury still poisons people. At least 13 million small-scale gold miners in Asia, Africa, and Latin America work with mercury  daily,  using it to extract the gold from raw ore. A doctor in Papua New Guinea told us about some of his patients, who were gold miners: “We have dozens of cases of mercury poisoning. ….They stare blankly at the wall. You cannot talk to them, they are not conversant, nothing. They are like zombies. And we have several cases that did not recover.”

Today, Japan has a chance to say “never again.” A global treaty on mercury is  being finalized to protect people and the environment from mercury. Next month, governments from around the world will come together in Switzerland for a final round of negotiations, which started in 2010 under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

A lot is at stake. For the treaty to become a strong and effective tool, it must mandate legally binding measures for reducing mercury, preventing harm to people’s health and providing health care. Unfortunately, many governments—particularly Canada and the United States—are reluctant to include health strategies in the treaty. They contend that this treaty is about the environment, and they are also concerned about the cost of health measures.

At gold mines in Mali and Tanzania, we have seen children mixing mercury with their bare hands into the ground ore, and inhaling mercury vapor during processes to purify the gold. An 11-year-old girl in Mali told us about her work with mercury: “I do this daily.… I know mercury is dangerous, but I don’t know how. I do not protect myself.” In Mali and Tanzania, health workers in nearby health centers did not have any training on how to diagnose or treat mercury-related conditions.  

Japan should stand up and say loud and clear that the mercury treaty needs an article about  health  –health strategies offer important tools that should not be left out. Prevention measures  should include public and targeted awareness-raising on the dangers of mercury, training on mercury-related conditions for health workers, and data gathering among affected populations—measures that are lacking in many countries.

Governments also need to develop plans to test and treat people with symptoms of mercury poisoning. Addressing the health impact of mercury cannot be accomplished through environmental measures alone. It is unthinkable that the treaty would not have anything to offer to those who are suffering from mercury poisoning.

The Japanese government wants this treaty to be adopted as the “Minamata Treaty” in Kumamoto prefecture in Fall 2013. If the Japanese government is serious about the Minamata legacy, it should support a strong mercury treaty with a comprehensive health article.

Kanae Doi is the director of the Japan office for Human Rights Watch.