Memory loss, heart palpitations, respiratory problems – villagers on the Philippine island of Palawan are showing signs consistent with mercury poisoning.

According to a government study made public this week, many residents of two Palawan villages have symptoms of Minamata disease, named after the Japanese fishing town of Minamata where a large chemical company discharged mercury from 1932 until 1968 into the bay, causing one of the largest mercury poisoning disasters in history.  

Mercury is a highly toxic metal that attacks the nervous system, can result in life-long disability, and is very harmful to children. In higher doses, it can kill.

I have seen distressing levels of mercury pollution in the Philippines with my own eyes. In the village of Malaya, in Camarines Norte province, I observed how light-grey, mercury-contaminated tailings from gold processing plants flowed straight into the river where children were bathing and working. One was 15-year-old “Michelle,” who had started processing gold with mercury when she was eight and began suffering from spasms, another symptom of mercury poisoning, at 9. Michelle is one of many: in the Philippines and globally, artisanal and small-scale gold mining is the largest sector of mercury use. 

Enforce Child Labor, Health and Mining Laws

This week’s news should serve as a wake-up call to the Philippines government that it needs to do much more to protect its people from toxic mercury. Minimum standards for preventing and tackling mercury exposure have been adopted in an international treaty, the United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury. It obliges governments to reduce mercury use, clean up contaminated sites, and promote health care for those poisoned. The convention has been ratified by 55 states and will enter into force on August 18; the first conference of state parties will take place in September.

The Philippines government should ratify and implement the Minamata Convention – and ensure that those suffering the horrific effects of mercury are fully informed about their rights and what they can do, protected from further poisoning, and treated for their existing conditions.