Intro Slide

Trading mercury

Global trade flows in Mercury and it's consequences on health and environment. To demonstrate the scale, three years earlier trade equaled just $43 million.

2012 $210m

Then in 2013, governments came together in Kumamoto to sign the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which aims to protect human health and the environment from mercury pollution. By ratifying it, parties committed not to open any new mercury mines, to close existing ones within 15 years, and not to export mercury unless importing countries provide written consent. The European Union and the United States instituted strict export bans, with a few exceptions allowing for mercury to be transported for scientific research.

By 2016, global trade in mercury had shifted decisively. The export bans meant the centre of gravity for mercury trade transferred from the Northern hemisphere to East Asia and South America. New routes from Mexico to Bolivia and Indonesia to Singapore were emerging. Meanwhile, since much of the mercury supply had previously originated from chlor-alkali industries in the United States and European Union, which were no longer available, new sources of supply appeared, namely mercury mines.

"Between 2011 and 2015, Mexico reopened mercury mines that had been shuttered for many years, while Indonesia opened new mines, in both cases before they had ratified the Minamata Convention" Peter Maxson Lead author of the Global Mercury Supply, Trade and Demand Report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Two-tier pricing

With the deadlines of the Minamata Convention set, a two-tiered pricing system emerged. As a result of the export bans in the European Union and United States, in 2011 and 2013 respectively, the price of mercury in those regions declined, as did the demand, but the mercury supply remained plenty. Meanwhile on the global market, mercury costs sky-rocketed, and high demand was depleting the available resources, meaning there was much incentive for racketeering.

One such case involved a private company in Germany. After the European Union export ban, roughly 1,000 tonnes of mercury—mostly from the chlor-alkali industry—were sent to the company for recycling and disposal. What top officials in the company realized is that they could make better profits by reselling the mercury outside the European Union. So, the company began disguising pure mercury as hazardous waste and legally exporting it from the European Union. Once the “waste” had left Germany, it was recovered and sold on the international market.

Since much of the mercury was sent to Switzerland, Swiss authorities eventually caught wind of the scheme after noticing that their mercury exports were abnormally high. Efforts were made to track the mercury and return it to Germany, but 810 tonnes had been exported illegally. The case demonstrated the value of collecting and publishing accurate mercury trade data, as well as the need to carefully monitor mercury movement from source to end.

810 tonnes illegally exported
"We can see the real power of the Minamata Convention in a case such as this one by looking through the prism of otherwise dry trade statistics to reveal irregularities, and possibly illegal movement and trading of mercury" Claudia ten Have Senior Policy Coordination Officer of the Minamata Convention

Mining for gold

Today, the largest global consumer for elemental mercury is the artisanal and small-scale gold mining industry. In the process mercury is used to extract gold from the ore by forming a mercury-gold amalgam. This method of gold extraction is particularly prevalent in developing countries where mercury is relatively inexpensive, and many miners are unaware of its toxic effects.

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“In small-scale gold mining communities, the mercury and gold trade are often closely linked, making identifying a solution difficult,” said Ludovic Bernaudat, programme management officer of UNEP’s Chemicals and Health Branch.” The UNEP-led planetGOLD programme is working with small-scale gold mining communities in eight countries to introduce mercury-free, clean and efficient gold extraction methods as well as taking steps to shorten the gold value chain.”

Globally, small-scale gold mining is responsible for 37 per cent of mercury emissions and is the largest source of mercury pollution in the world, according to the Global Mercury Supply, Trade and Demand Report published by UNEP. Approximately 15 million people—3 million of which are women and children—participate in the small-scale gold mining industry across at least 70 countries, mainly in East and Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South America. Those living in or near small-scale gold mining communities are exposed to the element at high levels, often from contaminated water and soil, or from the vapour produced while heating up the mercury-gold amalgam. The effects of mercury poisoning can be devastating, with symptoms including seizures, memory, vision and hearing loss, and developmental disorders.

Mexico has a long history of mercury mining with more than 300 mines recorded to date. In 2010, as the price of mercury rose globally, so did individuals’ appetite for mining. Old mines were reopened, new ones dug, and the quantity of exported mercury rose from 26 to 134 tonnes in just a year. In 2015, the country legally exported some 300 tonnes, with additional exports made illegally.

“Today, much of the previously Mexico-exported mercury has ended up in informal mining projects where it is used in the process to separate gold,” said Bram Ebus, regional consultant on mercury for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, The Netherlands branch. “A significant share of the Mexican mercury enters trafficking routes and wildcat mining projects in countries where its application is prohibited. There are definitely criminal elements to it.”

Since the Minamata Convention came into force in 2017, undocumented Mexican mercury has found its way to Bolivia, which does not have an import ban, and from there to Peru—even though the country has an import ban in place. The mercury is primarily used in small-scale gold mining, with Bolivia having a particular hunger, as gold is now the country’s third-largest export.

"Countries on the receiving end—such as Bolivia, Guyana and Surinam—cope with serious environmental harm and health issues as a result of mercury contamination" Bram Ebus

Next steps

Although databases such as the United Nations’ Comtrade and the European Union’s Eurostat are filled with mercury trade data, they are limited in presenting global trade of mercury-added products. There are also issues when trying to identify the origins and final destinations of shipments, with mistakes made—some of them intentional—in the transport documents of certain commodities. But even with better accountability, UNEP’s Global Mercury Supply, Trade and Demand Report suggests that there are limits to the data, as some details of commercial shipments are sensitive and therefore not public information.

The Minamata Convention controls the whole life cycle of mercury. In parallel with the effort to reduce illegal trade and control the circulation , global supply and demand of mercury will fall. This is why, combined with efforts to reduce the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining, the Minamata Convention requires countries to examine the various products mercury is used in—dental amalgam, blood-pressure measuring devices, etc.—and encourage alternatives.

"As long as the demand for mercury continues, similar to the demand for certain drugs, supplies will be found to fill that demand" Maxson