Governments around the world should immediately sign the new, groundbreaking Minamata Convention on Mercury, Human Rights Watch said today. Officials around the world will meet in Kumamoto, Japan beginning October 7, 2013, to formally adopt the treaty. Once adopted, it will be opened for signature and ratification.
Mercury is a poisonous metal that can cause ill-health, disability, and death. The convention obliges governments to reduce mercury use and emissions in a range of industries and processes.
“Millions of people around the world are exposed to the toxic effects of mercury,” said Juliane Kippenberg, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This treaty will help protect both the environment and people’s right to health.”
The treaty is named after the Japanese town of Minamata, where one of the worst mercury poisoning disasters ever occurred in the 1950s. A chemical factory polluted the bay with mercury. According to official figures, 1,700 people died, but the real number is believed to be much higher. In addition, tens of thousands more suffered life-long disability, including brain damage, intellectual disabilities, birth defects, and other health problems. Many of the victims were children.
Most mercury is currently used in small-scale gold mining. An estimated 10 to 15 million people work in small-scale gold mining in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and rely on mercury as a cheap and easy method for extracting gold. As liquid mercury is poured into ground-up ore, it attracts the gold particles and forms an amalgam. To separate the gold from the mercury, miners then burn the amalgam, turning the mercury into poisonous gas. Much of the gold from small-scale mining is exported and reaches the global gold market.
Human Rights Watch research has documented the use of mercury by children and adults in Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, and Papua New Guinea. Although mercury is particularly harmful to children, some children work with mercury on a daily basis, unaware of the health risks. International law prohibits such hazardous child labor. Children are also exposed to mercury fumes when their parents or older siblings burn the amalgam in their homes.
“Under the Minamata Convention, action on mercury is no longer a voluntary matter,” Kippenberg said. “Governments that sign and ratify are now legally obliged to reduce mercury exposure in mining and to make special efforts to protect children and women of childbearing age.”
Under the convention, countries with small-scale gold mining will be required to develop national action plans. The plans will have to include steps to eliminate particularly harmful practices, such as burning the gold-mercury amalgam in residential areas, and burning the amalgam without devices to capture the mercury gas produced. While the convention fails to set an end-date for the use of mercury in mining, it obliges governments to reduce mercury use and promote mercury-free alternative methods.
The treaty also obliges governments to protect the health of small-scale mining communities by gathering health data, training health-care workers, and raising awareness of the dangers of mercury through health facilities. In addition, it calls upon governments to prevent and treat all populations affected by mercury, and to strengthen the capacities of health professionals to cope with mercury-related sickness. This is the first time that an environmental agreement recognizes the importance of the health sector through a standalone article on health.
“It is so important that the treaty recognizes the critical role the health sector has to play not only in prevention, but also in monitoring patients’ levels of exposure, and offering them the care they need,” Kippenberg said.
Mercury attacks the central nervous system and can cause lifelong disability, including brain damage. Higher levels of mercury exposure may result in kidney failure, respiratory failure, and death. Mercury is particularly harmful for children, as their systems are still developing, and its damage is irreversible.
Governments should send a clear signal of support by signing the convention now, at the diplomatic conference, Human Rights Watch said. They should also take the necessary steps to ensure their parliaments can ratify the convention as soon as possible.
The convention was negotiated over more than three years under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). It will enter into force when 50 governments have ratified it. Once in force, the convention will offer a financial mechanism to help governments develop the necessary resources and provide technical assistance for reducing the use of mercury through the Global Environment Facility, a multi-donor trust fund. Even before the treaty enters into force, though, governments can apply to the fund for financial support.
“People around the world are being harmed by mercury right now,” Kippenberg said. ”Governments should save lives and people’s health by starting right now to reduce mercury use and emissions in mining and other industries.”