18 May 2017 Story Chemicals & waste

Quicksilver bullet: New convention to slow the flow of mercury

Like millions of people around the world, Maria, who is in her thirties and lives in Tarza, Colombia, spends her evenings using an online university. She’s studying philosophy in the hope of getting a better job and a better future for her young son— and their long-term health depends on it.

Because Maria isn’t like most students. Her husband was killed during the conflict in Colombia and she had to flee the violence with their baby boy. Now she mines gold to survive – part of a global industry of artisanal and small-scale mining that is one of the most significant sources of man-made mercury pollution.

Colombia produces about 5 per cent of the world’s gold, but uses about 20 per cent of the world’s mercury supply to do it. As most of the gold is produced illegally, there’s no protection for workers like Maria or their families. Many miners are contaminated from handling it directly; many more people live with mercury contaminated water, soil and air.

Maria started mining nine years ago and her son has grown up in this environment.

Today, Maria hopes the peace process in Colombia can finally bring new opportunities for her region.

“What we need, more than anything else, is employment,” she said. “We don’t want handouts. For peace to come to this region, we need dignified work.”

Maria is one of up to 15 million workers in 70 different countries exposed to mercury through mining, including up to 5 million children. Small and artisanal gold mining is mostly an unregulated, informal sector, and often takes place where there is little other work.

But the sector and its workers have reason to hope that things will get better.

This week, the Minamata Convention clocked up 50 ratifications, meaning it will come into force on 16 August 2017.

The Convention, which has been signed by 128 countries, commits Parties to specific measures to control mercury pollution, one of the top 10 threats to human health globally.

It is the first new global Convention related to the environment and health in close to a decade, and covers the entire “lifecycle” of man-made mercury pollution. Obligations include banning new mercury mines, phasing-out existing ones, regulating artisanal and small-scale gold mining, and reducing emissions and mercury use. Since the element is indestructible, the Convention also lays out conditions for interim storage and disposal of mercury waste.

Where artisanal and small-scale gold mining is concerned, governments will need to take steps to ban the worst practices and promote best practices. Countries with a “more than insignificant” artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector will have to develop and implement plans that establish inventory of the sector, set a strategy to formalise the sector and set targets for reducing mercury pollution.

Formalizing the sector would lessen the vulnerability of these workers, something 50-year-old lifelong Colombian artisan miner Albiro knows well.

He spends his days lugging 75-kilogram sacks of mine tailings to a local river and pans for gold flakes, making $300 in a good month.

The government recently shut down his site for not having the right permits, but that doesn’t deter him – mining is the only way he can support his family.

“We tried many times to have a formal mining title,” he explained. “But we don’t understand the law or how the process works.

“The conflict makes things worse. Armed groups occupy many mining lands. We need to stay quiet. There’s an armed gang not far from here. They can make life very difficult.”

“With mercury, we have solutions that are as obvious as the problem itself,” said Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment. “There are alternatives to all of mercury’s current applications, such as newer, safer industrial processes”.

“Big and small countries can all play a role – as can the man and woman in the street, just by changing what they buy and use.”

That’s because, although the people most directly exposed to mercury are some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, the dangerous heavy metal is much more widespread and pervasive than one would think.

It can be found in everyday products, including cosmetics, lightbulbs and batteries. Other sources of mercury pollution include the production of chlorine and some plastics, waste incineration, coal burning and the use of mercury in laboratories, pharmaceuticals, preservatives, paints and jewellery.

“Who wants to live in a world where putting on makeup, powering our phones and even buying a wedding ring depends on exposing millions of people to the risk of mercury poisoning?” said Solheim.

There is no safe level of exposure to mercury, yet up to 8,900 tonnes of mercury are emitted each year, through both human activities and natural processes.

The heavy metal has spread to the remotest parts of the earth. Those most vulnerable to mercury poisoning include children, newborns, unborn babies, populations who eat contaminated fish, people who use mercury at work and those who live near a source of mercury pollution. Populations in colder climates are also particularly at risk, as mercury tends to accumulate in these regions.

The world has come a long way from 1950s Minamata Bay, from where the Convention takes its name. This was where the most severe mercury poisoning disaster in history took place.

In 1956, after sustained dumping of industrial wastewaters into Minamata Bay, local villagers who ate fish and shellfish from the bay started suffering convulsions, psychosis, loss of consciousness and coma. Some died. In all, thousands of people were certified as having directly suffered from mercury poisoning, now known as Minamata disease.

The Minamata Convention’s coming into force brings new life to efforts to protect miners like Maria and Albiro, and will chart a path to protect humans and the environment from the ill effects of contact with mercury.