Mercury exposure has been tied to a suite of health problems, among them damage to the central nervous system and the immune system.
Over half of the world’s mercury emissions are generated by coal-fired power plants. The toxic heavy metal is also released by gold mines, cement plants, incinerators, and the PVC industry. And it’s used in a variety of medical and household products.
Mercury can travel long distances in the air. When it enters wetlands, it’s converted to a particularly toxic form of mercury that is stored in the fat. Larger, older fish carry the heaviest burdens. And when the fish are eaten by pregnant women, their infants are at risk of birth defects.
With all this in mind, it was welcome news to hear that at the most recent United Nations talks in Geneva, more than 140 nations agreed on the first legally-binding global treaty to reign in mercury pollution.
Dubbed the Minamata Convention on Mercury—in recognition of a Japanese town that suffered from extreme contamination—it focuses on curbing mercury pollution by targeting products and industries where it is used or released.
This includes reducing industrial emissions and the use of mercury in gold mining, as well as phasing out mercury in a variety of products. The treaty also addresses mercury waste disposal and the training of healthcare workers.
After four years of spirited negotiations, the treaty will be signed this fall. It won’t provide immediate relief, as it’s expected to take 3-4 year to go into effect. But it’s an important starting point.
Minamata Convention on Mercury
Biggest Sources of Mercury Pollution
Photo, taken on June 3, 2008, courtesy of Thure Johnson via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. Support for Earth Wise comes from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY, with partial support from the Field Day Foundation.