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The New International Convention on the Highly Toxic Metal Mercury Could, Despite Some Flaws, Be a Huge Step Forward in Protecting the Right to Health

This weekend, more than 140 governments agreed on the text for a new legally binding convention on mercury, a highly toxic metal. It has taken three years and many compromises to get here. What often seemed like a dry and bureaucratic process – delegates arguing over nuance during long night sessions – has very real implications for millions of people around the globe.

Mercury attacks the central nervous system and is particularly harmful to children. It is used in various sectors, including in the production of a type of plastic, polyvinyl chloride, and is emitted by coal-fired power plants. The largest sector for mercury use and emissions is artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

At least 13 million people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America work in small-scale gold mining, relying on mercury to separate gold from the rock ore. Miners, including children, mix the mercury into the crushed ore to attract the gold and burn the amalgam, releasing toxic mercury vapors. This can cause permanent mental disability and a range of other conditions. Human Rights Watch research has found that many miners do not know about these risks. One doctor in Papua New Guinea told us how some miners with mercury poisoning were "star(ing) blankly at the wall" and "did not recover". 

Under the new treaty, governments are obligated to draw up action plans on artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Under these plans, governments must ban the most harmful forms of mercury use, such as the burning of amalgam in residential areas, a practice we have documented in several countries. Governments also have to promote methods to reduce mercury use in mining, seek to improve the health of miners, and take steps to protect children and women of childbearing age from exposure to mercury used in mining.

This is good news. Governments are finally getting a signal that they are responsible for ensuring their people and environment does not get poisoned. And for the first time, an environmental treaty recognises the importance of health strategies by including provisions on health prevention and treatment of mercury-related conditions.

But there is bad news too. The convention lacks teeth in many key areas. It does not set an end-date for the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining, nor does it include a clear plan on how to phase it out. While the treaty calls for protection of children, it does not explicitly address the critical and widespread problem of child labour in small-scale mining. In the end the one article in the convention, which provides specific provisions for health, became voluntary after days of tough talks during which the European Union, Canada, and the United States rejected mandatory language on this. 

Despite these flaws, the agreement of this new treaty is a positive development. The new Minamata Convention on mercury – named after a mercury poisoning disaster that killed more than 1,700 people in Japan half a century ago – has to be brought to life now. Governments should sign it, ratify it, and implement it. If they do that, the convention will be a huge step forward in protecting the right to health.

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