More than 140 nations have agreed on a new, legally binding, international treaty to reduce harmful mercury emissions. The goal is to set enforceable limits and encourage alternatives to help cut mercury pollution from power plants, mining, and other products and industrial processes.
Mercury is a naturally-occurring element that cannot be created or destroyed, and has been recognized as a poison for hundreds of years. It is released into our water, land, and air from gold mining, coal-fired power plants, discarded thermostats, electrical switches, and dental amalgam fillings. It is often used in paints, batteries, and skin-lighting products.
Pregnant women, young children, and women of child-bearing age are at the highest risk of mercury poisoning, which is most commonly accumulated in fish and transferred into our bodies when we eat them. There are no safe limits of mercury consumption, which can cause memory loss, brain damage, kidney damage, and language impairment.
Japan, Norway, and Switzerland contributed $1 million each to get the mercury treaty started about 10 years ago, and the U.N. Environment Program says the treaty will be signed later this year in Minamata, Japan. Fifty nations will have to ratify it before it goes into effect, which officials predict will take 3 to 4 years. The U.S. was not in favor of the treaty until President Obama reversed the country’s position in 2009, which gave it a little extra push toward adoption. China and India have also played important roles in its passage.
Minimata disease is a severe neurological disease caused by mercury poisoning, and was discovered in the 1950s after hundreds of people died from consuming contaminated fish. Over the past 100 years, mercury found in the top 100 yards of the world’s oceans has doubled, with concentration levels going up as much as 25%.
Proponents are calling the new treaty a good start, giving it room to evolve and play a large role in the health of people and oceans around the world.
Image from Wikimedia Commons: Yelllowfin Tuna