Governments Move to Assess and Control Mercury Pollution

NAIROBI, Kenya, February 25, 2005 (ENS) - Governments have asked the United Nations Environment Programme to conduct a study on the amounts of mercury being traded and supplied around the world that could be a first step towards a legally binding treaty to control mercury pollution. Environment ministers attending UNEP's 23rd Governing Council made the request as part of an expanded program of action on mercury.

After two years of fact-finding and partnership work to reduce mercury pollution, the environment ministers agreed to assess whether a legally binding treaty governing mercury is needed.

Mercury, a heavy metal linked with effects such as damage to the nervous systems of babies, is used in products such as fluorescent light bulbs, dental fillings and thermometers.

In the next two years, action will be taken on improving the communication of the risks of mercury to vulnerable groups, including pregnant mothers whose babies may be at risk if they eat too much mercury-contaminated fish or marine mammals such as seals.


Chair of the chemicals management contact group Ambassador Viveka Bohn of Sweden (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
Governments also agreed to promote best available techniques for reducing mercury emissions from chemical factories and other industrial sites.

They agreed to develop partnerships between governments, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to reduce mercury pollution, with the first pilot projects to be in place by September this year.

Likely partnerships include ones to reduce emissions of mercury from coal fired power stations, from chlor-alkali plants and from pollution linked with gold mining.

An estimated 2,000 metric tons of new mercury is released to the environment annually, mainly from coal-fired power stations, waste incinerators and as a result of artisinal mining of gold and silver.

Under the partnerships, governments will make experts and information on environmentally-friendly techniques available to those countries and industries requesting assistance.

The partnership mechanism will focus on mercury wastes and surplus stockpiles as well as promote research to improve understanding on how mercury moves around the planet.

UNEP has been asked to publicize these partnerships through publicity campaigns and through a dedicated web site and to review the success of the new program in two years.


Mercury emitted by coal-fired power plants, such as the Ferrybridge Power Station in England, is deposited on waters, where it is taken up by fish. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Environment ministers also today requested that UNEP conduct a global assessment of cadmium and lead transport. Governments want to better understand how the two heavy metals move through the atmosphere, seas and rivers in order to establish whether action at a global level is needed to address the health and environment effects.

Cadmium, which is found in products such as batteries, is a known toxic linked with respiratory and gastro-intestinal problems and in acute cases, kidney and skeletal effects.

Lead is linked with a variety of health problems including brain damage in young children and effects on the body's cardiovascular, and reproductive systems.

UNEP produced a global assessment of mercury in February 2003. The report says that coal-fired power stations and waste incinerators now account for around 1,500 tons or 70 percent of new, quantified human generated mercury emissions to the atmosphere. The majority is now coming from developing countries, with emissions from Asia, at 860 tons, the highest.

Artisinal mining of gold and silver, which is happening in an increasing number of less developed nations, is another significant source of mercury pollution, releasing an estimated 400-500 tons of mercury annually to the air, soils, and waterways.

Once in the atmosphere, this hazardous heavy metal can travel hundreds and thousands of miles, contaminating places far away from the sites where the pollution was originally discharged.

A study of women in the United States, cited in the 2003 report, found that about 1 in 12, or just under five million women, have mercury levels in their bodies above the level considered safe by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Three years ago, the U.S. National Research Council estimated that about 60,000 babies born each year in the U.S. could be at risk of brain damage with possible impacts ranging from learning difficulties to impaired nervous systems.

Based on more recent exposure data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some scientists think the number of at risk babies could be as high as 300,000. Globally the number could run into the millions, UNEP said.

More than 1,000 delegates attended the UNEP Governing Council from some 140 countries including Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and assistant environment minister of Kenya.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said, "At the start of this Governing Council I called on governments and delegates to take responsibility for the global environment in order to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals on issues such as poverty, water and health".

As the meeting closed today, he said, "I think we can say that they did this, pushing forward on a wide range of fronts including heavy metals, water and sanitation, gender equality and scientific assessments of this ever changing world," he added.

In other work at the Governing Council, governments formally adopted the Bali Strategic Plan for Technology Support and Capacity Building which will focus UNEP's work including support for developing countries on the national level in areas ranging from waste and data gathering to environment law and wildlife.

"We have also been given backing for our work on early warning of disasters and catastrophes including tsunamis," Toepfer said.

UNEP's finances have also been strengthened with governments agreeing to core funding for the organization of $144 million which " is the best it has ever been," said Toepfer.

If all sources of funding are calculated, the overall UNEP budget for the 2006-2007 period is close to $300 million.

Toepfer said he was delighted by the success of the Environment Institute, a new innovation at the Governing Council, which has included training workshops with delegates and guests. Members of the Nairobi community participated.

Toepfer applauded the important contribution of civil society who met just before the Governing Council at the Global Civil Society Forum.