The Minamata Convention on Mercury is an international treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. The year 2020 is a milestone for the Convention – it is when parties are required to cease the manufacture, import and export of many mercury-containing products listed in the Convention. Monika Stankiewicz, Executive Secretary of the Convention, reflects on its impact.
Mercury has been mined and utilized since ancient times. People used it in burial ceremonies, in paints in their houses, as a sedative, an aphrodisiac and a contraceptive, in cosmetics, to treat syphilis, to name a few. Alchemists believed that mercury was the component in all metals that gave them their “metal-ness.”
The chemical properties of mercury make it popular for many uses. It is the only common metal, which is liquid at ordinary temperature, it has high density and amalgamates easily with many metals, such as gold, silver, and tin.
If only people in the past knew what we know today. Health effects of metal and especially of its more toxic and bio-accumulative form called methylmercury, are devasting. It can damage brain functions, nervous system and is especially dangerous to women and unborn children since it is transmitted through the placenta.
Over the last decades, scientific evidence about the environmental fate of mercury and its compounds has grown tremendously. Past and present human activities have increased total atmospheric mercury concentrations by about 450% above natural levels (UNEP, 2019). Mercury from human activities can now be found in the most remote areas, in marine mammals and fish in the Arctic and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench—the deepest oceanic trench on the planet.
Despite all this evidence, mercury use continues – it is used to extract gold from ore on four continents and in certain products and industrial processes in countries around the world. But the scientific knowledge has not been produced in vain.
In 2013, a new treaty, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, was adopted by a global community under the auspices of UNEP. The Convention is named after Minamata Bay in Japan to remember the lessons of the tragic health damage by industrial mercury pollution in the 1950s and 1960s.
The aim of the treaty is to protect the environment and the human health from anthropogenic emissions and releases of the toxic heavy metal. It regulates the entire life cycle of mercury – its supply, trade, use, emissions, releases, storage, and the management of waste and contaminated sites.
This new piece of international law entered into force on 16 August 2017 and it already has 123 Parties, with new countries joining all the time.
2020 is a major deadline in the Convention. By the end of this year, Parties are required to cease the manufacture, import and export of many mercury-containing products listed in the Convention. These products are in every-day use and include batteries, switches and relays, certain types of lamps, cosmetics, pesticides, biocides and topical antiseptics, and certain types of measuring devices such as thermometers and manometers. Mercury use in two major manufacturing processes, Chlor-alkali industry and acetaldehyde production, is being phased out as well, along with restricting use in other industrial processes.
Science will continue to be instrumental to ensure effective and cost-efficient implementation of the Convention by its Parties. For instance, we know that artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is the largest user and emitter of mercury into the environment globally, accounting for 37% of total consumption and 38% of total anthropogenic emissions in 2015 (UNEP, 2019).
The Minamata Convention Parties work to reduce, and where feasible eliminate, the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, without pushing the often-informal sector underground. This is done primarily through formalization, including improving transparency and accountability in global gold supply chains. ASGM generates income for an estimated 10-15 million miners and another 100 million or more in the secondary economy and is thus an essential focus of economic recovery from COVID-19 and building back better.
Apart from the intentional use of mercury in processes and products, industrial activities to produce power and other commodities are a major source of mercury contributing to air pollution. Mercury emissions can be controlled by a wide range of technologies and best practices, including many which reduce other air pollutants at the same time. Shifting away from coal is an effective measure too.
For many years, four behavioural factors – unhealthy diets, tobacco-smoking, harmful use of alcohol and physical inactivity – were cited as the top risk factors for non-communicable diseases. In 2018, the United Nations High-level Meeting on non-communicable diseases included air pollution as a fifth risk factor. Non-communicable diseases, respiratory diseases included, currently account for the deaths of seven in every 10 people worldwide. A correlation between the level of air pollution and the number of COVID-19 cases does not come as a surprise (WEF, 2020).
In implementing the Minamata Convention, we are all working to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. Coral might be back in once heavily-polluted Minamata Bay in Japan, after decades of restoration. However, Minamata Bay people still suffer from past methyl-mercury poisoning. Building back better is also about creating a world where people can live in good health for generations to come.
We celebrate the third anniversary of the Convention with the great enthusiasm that we can #MakeMercuryHistory.
The single largest source of man-made mercury emissions is the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector, which is responsible for the emission of as much as 838 tonnes of mercury to the atmosphere every year. Learn how UNEP and the Global Environment Facility are helping reform the artisanal gold mining sector and ensure a toxic-free future at planetGOLD.org.5