Four-year-old girl in Tanzania plays in an amalgamation pond contaminated with mercury while adults process gold.

© 2012 Zama Coursen-Neff/Human Rights Watch

Pollution from toxic chemicals poses a serious threat to people’s health and the environment, but today, the global fight for environmental health got a boost.

The Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a resolution urging governments to prevent and treat the effects of mercury, and to ratify the new international mercury treaty, known as the Minamata Convention.

Mercury causes brain damage and other conditions, and is particularly harmful to children. One of the main uses for mercury is small-scale gold mining. Adults and children commonly use mercury to separate the gold from ore - something I documented when visiting small-scale mines in Tanzania and Mali.

At the WHO today, governments from around the world made clear that environmental protection and health have to go hand in hand, and that action must be taken urgently. This is a welcome development.

Almost exactly a year ago, I watched as governments fought bitterly over the text of the Minamata Convention on Mercury during the last round of negotiations. The European Union, the US, and Canada did not want the convention to call for the direct involvement of the health sector into what they considered an environmental issue. Latin American and African governments, as well as Human Rights Watch and other NGOs, urged for a standalone article on health. A compromise was found at the last hour, making some of the health measures in the treaty voluntary.

I am glad to see the tide has now changed, and see strong commitments to action on mercury from governments around the world – including Western governments – and from the WHO itself. It is particularly encouraging that one country, the US, has already deposited an ‘instrument of acceptance’ of the convention, and various other governments have started the ratification process. Fifty ratifications are needed for the convention to enter into force.

The time has come for governments to take action on mercury – by ratifying the convention quickly and by implementing it on the ground.