Global Mercury Negotiations Commence

Indigenous mercury poisoningThe world's environment ministers launched international negotiations to limit mercury pollution on Friday. 

In a unanimous decision at the annual meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council, held in Nairobi, Kenya, more than 140 countries agreed to reduce the global mercury supply through a multilateral treaty.

Mercury, a neurotoxin that has increasingly accumulated in people across the globe, is released into the environment during chemicals production as well as from coal-fired power plants, gold mines, and household products such as thermometers and light bulbs. 

"Today we are united on the need for a legally binding instrument and immediate action towards a transition to a low-mercury world," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a statement. "The time for action on this pollution is now." 

The United States opposed a legally binding mercury treaty during the administration of President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama's administration surprised meeting attendants last week with its quick reversal of the Bush policy. 

"There is a call to come together to launch an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international agreement on mercury. The United States now joins that call," said Daniel Reifsnyder, Obama's deputy assistant secretary for environment and sustainable development, last Monday. "It is clear that mercury is the most important global chemical issue facing us today." 

Before the United States changed its position, industrialized countries including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand opposed a mercury treaty. The world's two largest commercial consumers of mercury, China and India, also resisted calls to initiate treaty negotiations. But all countries joined the United States in support at Friday's meeting. 

"The U.S. position changed dramatically. It changed on a dime. It changed the entire tenor of the discussion," said Susan Keane, a senior analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who attended the meeting. "Everyone here was amazed." 

The UNEP decision leaves room for the final treaty to include both binding and voluntary approaches to curb mercury pollution. Negotiations are set to begin next year and to conclude by 2013. 

Although the UNEP decision did not discuss details of the future agreement, the U.S. delegation suggested that the treaty bring "particular attention to sectors that have the greatest global impact, such as coal-fired power plants." 

In the decision, governments asked UNEP to study current mercury emission controls as well as cost-effective alternatives to mercury in sectors including coal-fired power plants, cement production, and non-ferrous metals mining. The report will be prepared in time for next year's Governing Council meeting in Dubai. 

The two major mercury traders, the European Union and the United States, had already agreed to ban future mercury exports before the treaty announcement. The E.U. plans to phase-out its mercury trade starting in 2011. The U.S. ban will be effective in 2013, according to legislation that Obama sponsored as a U.S. senator. 

"Obama has been interested in mercury for a long time, so [launching a treaty] was not a hard sell," Keane said. 

Mercury pollution circulates around the globe and often accumulates in the tissue of commercially important fish species, such as swordfish and tuna. The risk of mercury contamination is greatest for populations with high per capita fish consumption, and in locations where environmental pollution is widespread.

In eastern India, nearly half of the 56 locally available fish varieties tested had mercury contamination rates above the World Health Organization's standards, according to a recent report from the U.S.-based Mercury Policy Project.

But some of the most chemically contaminated human and wildlife populations reside in remote Arctic regions where, because of prevailing winds and currents, pollutants often collect. Mercury levels in Arctic ringed seals and beluga whales tested off the coasts of Canada and Greenland are four times the levels of 25 years ago. In Sweden, toxic pike have been found in about 50,000 lakes, according to UNEP.

The worldwide rise in mercury pollution is attributed in part to increased coal burning and small-scale gold mining worldwide. Meanwhile, mercury trapped in Arctic ice and sediments is being re-released into the environment as climate change accelerates and these surfaces melt, UNEP said.

In other decisions, the UNEP Governing Council agreed to hold a meeting later this year to discuss the creation of a scientific body focused on biodiversity that would be similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The council also plans to deploy a mission to Gaza next month to assess environmental damage resulting from the ongoing conflict with Israel.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldatch.org.

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