17 Oct 2017 Speech Chemicals & waste

Make Mercury History! Geneva, Switzerland September 24, 2017

Ministers, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I am extremely proud to speak at this historic occasion on behalf of UN Environment.

More importantly, I am proud to offer a voice to the many individual citizens around the world:

  • Who are directly affected by the Minamata Convention
  • And who, I am sure, would want to remind us that this gathering is just the start of the work.


  • Like Dr Mercedes Zarlenga, who is part of the neonatal team at the Rivadavia Hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • Like Bobby Griffin, who rents out mobile homes on the San Jacinto River, in Texas, in the US.
  • Like Aristarco Mosquera, who runs the ‘Oro Verde’ - or ‘Green Gold’ – Fairtrade mine, in the Chocó region of Colombia.
  • And like Shinobu Sakamoto and Mayor Hiroshi Nishida who are from the city for which this Convention is named.

They lead very different lives, in very different places.

They will almost certainly never meet.

And they have one very lethal thing in common: exposure to mercury.

What’s worse, they are not alone.

Far from it.

In fact, the World Health Organization rates mercury as one of the top 10 chemicals or groups of chemicals of major health concern. Yet exposure is not limited to one or two areas; to a few loopholes in protection.

Studies show that children as far afield as Brazil, Canada, China, Columbia and Greenland all suffer cognitive impairment from eating fish containing mercury.

  • Today, it affects daily life for them and their families.
  • In the future, it will have a longer term social and economic impact on their communities and their countries.

That’s why the Minamata Convention is such an important milestone.

  • Not only because it is the first such global environmental health agreement in nearly a decade.
  • But because it is an essential building block for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.


However, around the world, too many people are still at risk, because:

  1. Too few people even know that mercury can be found in everything from mascara and dental amalgam to artisan gold mining and coal fired power generation.
  2. Too few nations are equipped to deal with this deadly and indestructible element that can seep into our air, land, water and food chain. That damages our children before they can even draw their first breath.
  3. And far – far - too few of the opportunities that could be created by bringing it under control are actually being grasped. That means we are also missing out on ways address security, climate change and social and economic development.

The good news is that this Conference of the Parties to turn this around.


First, because the potential to scale up awareness and action is huge.

Take Dr. Zarlenga and her team in Buenos Aires, who looked at the mercury being thrown away with broken thermometers and blood pressure devices.

  • They realized they were dumping enough mercury in a single week to cause dangerous levels of pollution in lake Nahuel Huapi, one of the largest lakes in Patagonia, for a whole year.
  • The instruments meant to improve health were actually damaging it.
  • So, they quickly switched to digital alternatives, followed by the rest of the hospital and medical facilities across Argentina.
  • Even better, they also realized that not only are the alternatives just as accurate, but they are also cheaper in the long run.

As soon as the team knew what they were doing to their health, their environment and their communities, they acted.

And, perhaps appropriately for a neonatal team, their effort will benefit generations to come.

Now imagine scaling that up globally!


This is where the second issue comes in. Because to achieve scale, more countries need the finances, resources and technology to track, collect and handle mercury.

A new UN Environment report assesses mercury waste management in 30 countries.

  • Experiences vary a lot from place to place, but the central finding is very clear.
  • There is a huge gap between the provisions of the Minamata Convention and current practices.

In many countries, the fundamental issue is waste management itself.

Mercury is still used in too many basic household or commercial items like fluorescent lamps, or electric switches that are regularly thrown away.

  • Some countries have no formal waste management mechanisms.
  • Some mix it with other municipal or industrial waste in landfills or open dumping sites.
  • And others manage it with their hazardous waste, but not necessarily with specific handling for mercury.

Countries like Ethiopia are maturing from simple collection and disposal, towards a circular economy that values it as a resource.

  • Micro-entrepreneurs and private companies take household and industrial waste to local authorities, who transfer it to landfill or separate it for recycling outside of the country.
  • Today, mercury waste is managed within this general legal framework.
  • However, the country is carrying out a mercury assessment to introduce specific separation, sorting and collection schemes, putting Ethiopia on the road the better health and prosperity.

But, it’s important to acknowledge that this problem is not restricted to developing countries.

The European Union has phased out many products and introduced specific collection and treatment to reduce waste levels, increase recycling and guarantee sound management.

However, significant hurdles remain. For example:

  • Chlor-alkali facilities must be converted to mercury-free technology by the end of this year.
  • This will generate about 6,000 tonnes more waste mercury than can be treated.
  • It can be stored for up to five years in specially adapted facilities.
  • But this still represents a considerable challenge.

Likewise, the US has a comprehensive cradle-to-grave management system for hazardous waste.

Yet, people like Bobby Griffin, cleaning up after Hurricane Harvey, are finding globules of mercury scattered among the debris of their homes.

And it’s not so easy to work out:

  • where it came from,
  • how much damage it has done,
  • or how to get it back under control.

So, the scale of the challenge can’t be underestimated.

  • For example, we illegally dump 90% of our electronic goods, which include lead compounds, cadmium, chromium and, of course, mercury.
  • That’s up to 50 million tonnes a year and growing fast.
  • And it’s just one area where mercury makes its way into our lives.


Which brings me to my final point – that the scale of the opportunity can’t be underestimated either.

Because even if you take just that one example

  • All that electronic waste we casually dump is worth over $50 billion a year.
  • Not least because it contains about 300 tonnes of gold – about 11% of global production.
  • But the legitimate waste market is already worth $400 billion a year.

That means that mobilising the private sector offers huge potential to:

  • Protect health.
  • Create more sustainable jobs.
  • And recover materials that took considerable investment, resources and risks to acquire in the first place.

For example, if we stay with that example and look at the gold we throw away.

  • Artisan and small scale mining produces about 15% of it and employs up to 15 million miners, about a third of which are women and children.
  • Unfortunately, the sector also uses about 1,400 tons of mercury a year.
  • Virtually all of which ends up in the environment.

In Colombia, those miners produce about 5% of the world’s gold, using about 20% of the mercury supply. Most is produced illegally by workers who:

  • Have no alternative, following years of conflict:
  • And have no protection, either from the mercury or the armed groups looking to profit.

But people like Aristarco Mosquera are determined to show there is another way forward. Having lost most of his family to mining when he was just six, he uses his Oro Verde mine to prove that gold mines can be socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. Despite:

  • Huge pressure from illegal miners, armed groups and multinationals.
  • And people being killed for speaking out.

Mercury exposure to miners and their communities can be reduced in simple and cost effective ways as part of broader sustainable development efforts.

But inhaling mercury from various industrial processes is one of the most common sources of exposure. So, this is a scenario that can be repeated elsewhere.

Take coal fired power production.

  • It damages our health and environment to extract expensive raw material in the first place.
  • Then damages it again when it pumps toxic fumes and greenhouses gases out the other end in a one-shot inefficient hit.

Yet switching to renewable energy and smarter chemicals cuts pollution, creates jobs and economic growth, and curbs climate change in one go.

All of which builds vital social stability and explains why:

  • Nearly 10 million people already work in renewable energy.
  • The green chemistry market could be worth $100 billion by the end of the decade.
  • Plus, slowing global warming could also slow the rapid permafrost melting.
  • This is increasingly important as recent research suggests it could increase methylmercury production in the Arctic soil,
  • which could in turn accumulate and magnify into the food chain.


When you start to unravel this toxic web, regardless of the form, mercury’s poisonous strands touch too many aspects of too many lives. Yet:

  • With just one exception, every nation on Earth has ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, which obliges States to take account of the health risks from contaminated food, water and pollution.  
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts our right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
  • Nearly 150 national constitutions include environmental protection and over 100 countries guarantee their citizens the right to a healthy environment.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury can help States meet those commitments.

  • But it has taken us almost 60 years to reach this point.
  • So, we must rapidly turn the Convention into tangible action.

This inaugural Conference of the Parties is our chance to work towards:

  • The safe handling, storage, treatment and disposal of mercury products and waste.
  • The end of mercury production and use, especially in mining and industry.
  • The creation of clean, coal-free energy.
  • The adoption of mercury free thermometers, blood pressure monitors and amalgam.
  • The strengthening of judicial frameworks to hold people responsible for their action and ensure citizens have free access to the information and legal protection they need.
  • And better understanding the impact of exposure to mercury waste for the most vulnerable in society, particularly women and children.

I believe we can make great inroads at this gathering.

But I also believe that we have a perfect opportunity to build on that work at the UN Environment Assembly in December.

The Assembly will focus on moving towards a pollution free planet, including:

  • Increasing efforts to deploy safe, effective and affordable alternatives to a range of hazardous materials, including mercury.
  • And phasing out mercury from specific products by 2020 and manufacturing by 2025.

And if you are in any doubt about what’s at stake for this planet and its people, please take some time to talk with two very special people in the audience today:

  • Shinobu Sakamoto, who suffered mercury poisoning in her mother’s womb.
  • And Hiroshi Nishida, who is the Mayor of Minamata.

Not only are their stories a great reminder of how much damage can come from:

  • Poor control of mercury,
  • Insufficient knowledge or legal protection,
  • And a lack of public-private co-operation.

They are also, increasingly, a reminder of how effectively human determination can overcome adversity to create a better future.

The local and national governments learned some harsh lessons and have grown to become global environmental leaders.

  • Victims and their families work with organizations like the Hot House Vocational Programme
  • to rebuild their own lives
  • and protect others from suffering the same fate.
  • And the entire Minamata community is:
  • Embracing green growth,
  • And improving their health, environment and wellbeing
  • To earn its place as a Model Environmental City

Ladies and gentlemen, is our duty to ensure these lessons are learned, shared and acted upon in the same way, around the world. For people like:

  • Dr Zarlenga,
  • Bobby Griffin,
  • Aristarco Mosquera,
  • Shinobu Sakamoto and Mayor Nishida
  • And for the millions of others who continue to be affected by mercury - whether they know it or not.

We are privileged to have the opportunity of living up to our responsibility to make the Minamata Convention both:

  • A testimony to all who have already suffered.
  • And a force for progress to minimise the risk for millions more.

Such opportunities are rare in this life.

I suggest we grab it.

Thank you.

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