This week, Japan took a historic step in tackling the global threat of mercury: it joined the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The treaty is named after the Japanese fishing town of Minamata, where one of the world’s worst mercury poisoning disasters killed about 1,700 people in the 1950s. A survivor once told me how her father and many others suffered spasms and died. No one knew why – until it was discovered that they were poisoned by mercury that a chemicals factory had dumped into the bay.
Mercury remains a serious health threat today. Globally, an estimated 1,960 tons of mercury are released into the air, water, and soil every year. Mercury’s biggest use is in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, where the metal is mixed into the ground ore to form an amalgam with gold. The gold-mercury amalgam is then held over a flame so the mercury burns off – turning into toxic vapor – and the raw gold is left behind. I have spoken to many adults and children in Ghana, the Philippines, Tanzania, and Mali who worked with mercury, unaware that the metal can cause brain damage, other illness, and even death.
The Minamata Convention aims to protect people and the environment from the harms of this substance. It requires governments to tackle mercury use in mining by introducing mercury-free gold processing techniques, ending particularly harmful uses of mercury, and providing special protections for children who might otherwise be exposed. It also calls for testing and treatment of mercury-related health conditions.
Marked by the lessons from the Minamata disaster, Japan has played a leading role in the negotiations leading to the mercury treaty.
To honor the victims of Minamata, Japan should now take the lead in preventing further mercury pollution in Japan and worldwide. It should do so by phasing out mercury in its own industries and by providing technical assistance to poorer countries that seek to phase out mercury in mining or test mercury exposure.