16 Aug 2018 Story Chemicals & waste

The Minamata Convention on Mercury celebrates its first anniversary

REUTERS/Janine Costa

One year ago, on 16 August 2017, the Minamata Convention on Mercury – a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds – came into force.

Mercury is a natural element: it is found in the Earth’s crust and naturally released through volcanic activity and weathering of rocks. It exists in various forms, each with a varying degree of toxicity but all equally harmful, affecting the nervous system, the brain, the heart, the kidneys, the lungs and the immune system of all living beings. Because exposure to mercury – even small amounts – may cause serious health problems, including in utero, the World Health Organization considers it one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern.

Human activity contributes to the largest portion of mercury release. Every year, as much as 9,000 tons of mercury are released into the atmosphere, in water and on land. The largest source of mercury emissions is artisanal and small-scale gold mining, followed closely by coal combustion, non-ferrous metal production and cement production. Everyday items, such as cosmetics, some fluorescent bulbs, some batteries and dental fillings also contain mercury and mercury compounds. Poisoning occurs most often by ingestion of contaminated fish and inhalation – liquid mercury, once commonly used in thermometers, evaporates at room temperature.

A global response to a global problem

Mercury has a long environmental shelf life and a global pathway, as it cycles between the atmosphere, the ocean and land. This is why the international community chose a global response strategy to tackle the mercury problem throughout its entire life cycle. The Minamata Convention limits mercury mining, regulates trade, reduces the use of mercury in products and processes, decreases and eliminates the use of mercury in gold mining, controls mercury emissions into the air and water, and promotes sound waste disposal.

In May 2017, 50 countries had ratified the Convention. Today, the number of parties to the Convention has doubled, reaching 95, and many more countries are pledging their political and financial support to help reduce and eliminate the use of mercury and mercury compounds.

Jitsuko Tanaka, 64, is one of the first people to be officially recognized as victims of the crippling Minamata disease. Photo by REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The Minamata Convention is named after the city of Minamata in Japan, where local communities were poisoned by mercury-tainted industrial wastewater in the late 1950s and suffered crippling, untreatable and stigmatizing effects.

Through the Minamata Convention on Mercury, the global community remembers the many lives already lost to mercury poisoning and commits to preventing similar catastrophes.