31 January, 2013. A milestone has been reached when UN member countries earlier this month agreed to the first international agreement to control a toxic chemical, even a major brain drainer. The event was the successful conclusion of a ten-year effort initiated by the UN Environment Programme. By 2009, the member countries agreed that UNEP should move forward and develop an international agreement on this “sunset chemical” with the long-term aim of minimizing human and environmental exposures. The final negotiations continued into the wee hours of the night, but very early on Saturday morning, the agreed wordings were in place.
According to the press release from UNEP, “mercury and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts including brain and neurological damage especially among the young… Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well documented problems.”
Official signing of the agreement, which will be named the Minamata Convention at the suggestion of the Japanese government, will happen in Japan next October. Ratification by individual countries will then be required, and most Convention action will likely not take effect until 2020. A wide range of mercury-containing products, including mercury amalgams for dental fillings, must be phased out, but a mercury preservative needed in vaccines will not be banned until an alternative has been found.
Coal-fired power plants, industrial boilers, and smelters must use best available technology to capture mercury from smokestacks and prevent mercury releases to the environment. Small-scale gold mining, where mercury is used to trap gold particles, is also addressed, but weak mechanisms were included in the convention.
The Convention represents an important victory for UNEP and may pave the way for future agreements on major toxic chemicals on the sunset list. However, current concentrations of mercury in the environment may be 10-fold above those that were prevalent before the industrial revolution, so we have built up a sizable debt that now needs to be brought down. Unfortunately, mercury will only slowly be pacified at the bottoms of the oceans, and it will likely take many decades before the Convention will result in lowered contamination levels of seafood.
In the meantime, we should enjoy the nutritious seafood species that are low in the food chain.