Countries agree to treaty for mercury phase out

- terms in line with regional lobby, says Persaud

Governments yesterday in Geneva, Switzerland agreed to a landmark legally-binding global treaty to prevent emissions and releases of mercury, a notorious heavy metal that has significant health and environmental effects.

The agreement, which will require countries to draw up strategies to reduce the amount of mercury used by small-scale miners within three years, was hailed last evening by Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment Robert Persaud as consistent with what had been advocated by the Latin America and Caribbean regional sub-grouping. He told Stabroek News that the position of that sub-grouping was to have a period of phasing out and not an immediate ban on mercury products and financial and technical support to help countries in the region transition from the use of mercury. “Further, we are updating our regulations regarding the use of mercury in mining and finalising our draft action plan on mercury,” Persaud said.

President of the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) Patrick Harding said he needs to acquaint himself with the agreement before he could comment on it.

A statement from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) said that some 140 countries have committed to the Minamata Convention, agreeing to ban the production, export and import of a range of mercury containing products by 2020.

Robert Persaud
Robert Persaud

These products include batteries, except for ‘button cell’ batteries used in implantable medical devices, switches and relays, certain types of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps, soaps and cosmetics. The agreement is to be formally signed in October in Japan.

The statement said too that certain kinds of non-electronic medical devices such as thermometers and blood pressure devices are also included for phase-out by 2020. It said that governments approved exceptions for some large measuring devices where currently there are no mercury-free alternatives.

The statement said that vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative have been excluded from the treaty as have products used in religious or traditional activities. Further, the delegates at the meeting agreed to phase-down the use of dental fillings using mercury amalgam.
With regard to artisanal and small scale mining, the UNEP noted that the booming price of gold in recent years has spawned significant growth in small scale mining where mercury is used to separate gold from the ore-bearing rock.

“Emissions and releases from such operations and from coal-fired power stations represent the biggest source of mercury pollution world-wide. Workers and their families involved in small-scale gold mining are exposed to mercury pollution in several ways including through inhalation during the smelting,” the statement said.

The UNEP said that mercury is also being released into river systems from these small-scale operations where it can contaminate fish, the food chain and people downstream.

“Governments agreed that the treaty will require countries to draw up strategies to reduce the amount of mercury used by small-scale miners. Nations with artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations will draw up national plans within three years of the treaty entering into force to reduce and if possible eliminate the use of mercury in such operations,” it said. It added that public awareness campaigns and support for mercury-free alternatives will also be part of the plans.

Last August, following a meeting with President Donald Ramotar, miners won assurances of no bans on river mining or on the use of mercury, prompting criticism of the decision by the Guyana Human Rights Association.

Support for developing countries

The statement said that the Minamata Convention on Mercury – named after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred as a result of mercury pollution in the mid-20th Century – provides controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted. “These range from medical equipment such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors,” UNEP explained.

The treaty has been four years in negotiation and will be open for signature at a special meeting in Japan in October. It will also address the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury.

The new agreement will in part seek to pinpoint populations at risk, boost medical care and better training of health care professionals in identifying and treating mercury-related effects.

The statement said that mercury and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts, including brain and neurological damage, especially among the young. “Others include kidney damage and damage to the digestive system. Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well documented problems,” the UNEP said.

It added that initial funding to fast-track action until the new treaty comes into force in the expected three to five years’ time has been pledged by Japan, Norway and Switzerland.

“Support for developing countries is also expected from the Global Environment Facility and a programme once the convention is operational,” the statement said.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which convened the negotiations among over 140 member states in Geneva, said at the close of the meeting, “After complex and often all night sessions here in Geneva, nations have today laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized for well over a century.”

“Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva- in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come. I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible,” UNEP quotes him as saying.

Fernando Lugris, the Uruguayan chair of the negotiations, said, “Today in the early hours of [January 19, 2013] we have closed a chapter on a journey that has taken four years of often intense but ultimately successful negotiations and opened a new chapter towards a sustainable future. This has been done in the name of vulnerable populations everywhere and represents an opportunity for a healthier and more sustainable century for all peoples.”
Ambassador Franz Perrez of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Switzerland said:”Switzerland, which initiated with Norway the negotiations for a mercury convention, is very pleased about this impressive success. It will help us to protect human health and the environment all over the world and is a proof that multilateralism can work when political will exists.”

“This treaty will not bring immediate reductions of mercury emissions. It will need to be improved and strengthened, to make all fish safe to eat,” said David Lennett from the Natural Resources Defence Council representing the Zero Mercury Working Group a global coalition of environmental NGOs “Still, the treaty will phase out mercury in many products and we welcome it as a starting point.”

The UNEP said that the decision to launch negotiations was taken by environment ministers at the 2009 session of the UNEP Governing Council and the final and fifth negotiation took place this week in Geneva. treaty entering into force to reduce and if possible eliminate the use of mercury in such operations,” it said. It added that public awareness campaigns and support for mercury-free alternatives will also be part of the plans.

Last August, following a meeting with President Donald Ramotar, miners won assurances of no bans on river mining or on the use of mercury, prompting criticism of the decision by the Guyana Human Rights Association.

Support for developing countries
The statement said that the Minamata Convention on Mercury – named after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred as a result of mercury pollution in the mid-20th century – provides controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted. “These range from medical equipment such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors,” UNEP explained.

The treaty has been four years in negotiation and will be open for signature at a special meeting in Japan in October. It will also address the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury.

The new agreement will in part seek to pinpoint populations at risk, boost medical care and better training of health care professionals in identifying and treating mercury-related effects.

The statement said that mercury and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts, including brain and neurological damage, especially among the young. “Others include kidney damage and damage to the digestive system. Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well documented problems,” the UNEP said.

It added that initial funding to fast-track action until the new treaty comes into force in the expected three to five years’ time has been pledged by Japan, Norway and Switzerland.

“Support for developing countries is also expected from the Global Environment Facility and a programme once the convention is operational,” the statement said.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which convened the negotiations among over 140 member states in Geneva, said at the close of the meeting, “After complex and often all night sessions here in Geneva, nations have today laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized for well over a century.”

“Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva- in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come. I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible,” UNEP quotes him as saying.

Fernando Lugris, the Uruguayan chair of the negotiations, said, “Today in the early hours of [January 19, 2013] we have closed a chapter on a journey that has taken four years of often intense but ultimately successful negotiations and opened a new chapter towards a sustainable future. This has been done in the name of vulnerable populations everywhere and represents an opportunity for a healthier and more sustainable century for all peoples.”
Ambassador Franz Perrez of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Switzerland said:”Switzerland, which initiated with Norway the negotiations for a mercury convention, is very pleased about this impressive success. It will help us to protect human health and the environment all over the world and is a proof that multilateralism can work when political will exists.”

“This treaty will not bring immediate reductions of mercury emissions. It will need to be improved and strengthened, to make all fish safe to eat,” said David Lennett from the Natural Resources Defence Council representing the Zero Mercury Working Group a global coalition of environmental NGOs “Still, the treaty will phase out mercury in many products and we welcome it as a starting point.”

The UNEP said that the decision to launch negotiations was taken by environment ministers at the 2009 session of the UNEP Governing Council and the final and fifth negotiation took place this week in Geneva.

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