No major victories were achieved in the negotiations. There is still no agreement on a common global method for measuring and identifying mercury-contaminated waste from industrial sources such as chemical manufacturers and oil and gas operators. Mercury can still be purchased online and traded internationally, but states can’t agree on when to remove it from tooth fillings.
But there were also some successes. Countries agreed to ban the use of mercury as a preservative in cosmetics by 2025, and also agreed to increase support for indigenous peoples in future negotiations.
Mercury, a silvery, highly toxic heavy metal, continues to pose a serious threat to the environment and health around the world, and last week world leaders met in Geneva, Switzerland, to regulate mercury pollution, trade and use. We held negotiations for five days to resolve the issue. . Mercury is used in a variety of products, including whitening cosmetics, batteries, fluorescent lights, pesticides, and dental amalgam to fill cavities. It is also a byproduct of coal-fired power plants and waste incineration.
Ten years ago, the United Nations adopted the Minamata Convention on Mercury to eliminate the effects of chemicals on humans and the environment. Named after Japan’s Minamata Bay, where more than 2,000 people were poisoned by mercury-contaminated wastewater in the 1950s and 1960s, the debilitating disease causes hearing and speech impairments, loss of coordination, muscle weakness, and visual impairment. It was called Minamata disease because of the symptoms. Exposure to mercury has serious neurological and adverse health effects, especially for fetuses and infants. Human exposure to this chemical is usually through eating contaminated fish, where the chemical bioaccumulates, and occupational exposure in dental amalgams, mines, waste facilities, dental offices, and other workplaces where mercury is present. happen.
The goal of the Minamata Convention, adopted in 2013 and made legally binding in 2017, is to eventually eliminate the use of mercury. The treaty would phase out a wide range of products containing the chemical, including batteries, compact fluorescent lights, pesticides, thermometers and other measuring devices, while also phasing out products that were heavily dependent on mercury, such as in the manufacture of chlorine. Industrial processes are now obsolete. Almost non-existent. Currently, global mercury trade has decreased significantly.
However, the demand for this chemical still exists. So far, the biggest driver of the mercury market has been small-scale artisanal gold mining operations, and one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to extract gold from ore is to convert gold to mercury. is to mix and separate low-quality gold powder and flecks. deposit. Small-scale artisanal gold mining operations account for almost 20% of the world’s gold supply, meaning the rise and fall of the mercury trade is driven by demand for gold.
These activities are particularly widespread in the Amazon, Indonesia, and West Africa, where they release 35 percent of all mercury pollution into the environment, create new toxic sites far faster than cleanup efforts, and harm indigenous peoples and local communities. is affecting both. Representatives from Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia and Canada said that both indigenous peoples and local communities are particularly vulnerable to mercury exposure, and that close relationships with indigenous peoples mean that mercury contamination poses serious health and environmental risks. He pointed out that they are one of the first ethnic groups to face the impact. environment.
For example, the Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario, Canada, has been exposed to mercury for three generations. In the 1960s and ’70s, paper mills dumped nearly 10 tons of mercury into rivers that indigenous peoples depend on for fish. Recent research has linked higher rates of suicide attempts among Indigenous youth to intergenerational mercury exposure. In California, historic mines left over from the mid-1800s gold rush pose public health, land management, and environmental challenges for tribal, state, and federal agencies.
Where countries are coming together to tackle the mercury problem, it is understandably difficult to reach an international agreement. No agreement was reached on the issue of standards for mercury waste, which determine how much mercury each country may contain in waste exported.
The agreement reached last week is 15 milligrams per kilogram, which experts say is acceptable for now and likely to fall in the future, but advocates say the biggest concern is , regarding the introduction of an “opt-out clause.” waste.
“This opens the floodgates to any country. If they don’t want to use 15 milligrams per kilogram, they can use whatever threshold they like, whatever measurement technique they like, whatever classification system they like. “We can do that,” Lee Bell Policy said. Advisor to the International Pollutant Removal Network. “There is now a de facto system in which any country can declare certain types of waste to be mercury waste, or not.”
According to Bell, this has a huge impact on the movement of waste across borders.
Suppose a country in the northern part of the world sets a standard for mercury at 25 milligrams per kilogram. This figure is considered safe because the country in question has effective waste management measures that protect the environment and human health. Thanks to these standards, if this country exports waste that tests at, say, 20 milligrams per kilogram, it does not have to declare it as mercury waste. It is safe according to national standards.
This will allow shipments to countries in the Global South where the standard is much lower, such as 15 milligrams per kilogram. However, because countries of origin are not required to label exported waste as mercury waste due to their own national standards, receiving countries do not know what is inside.
“The onus is now on the importing country to spend the money to do the testing once the material has already arrived,” Bell said. “If 15 milligrams per kilogram were applied in the exporting and importing countries, both countries would know what substance they were dealing with. It’s apples to apples.”
Opting out would effectively derail the legally binding language within the treaty and undermine the agreed-upon 15-milligram threshold, but it helps explain the divide in opinion at such meetings: Northern countries tend to have economic and industrial-based interests, while those in the Global South are typically more concerned with protecting their populations from northern interests.
Next, let’s talk about dentistry. Mercury is still used in dental fillings, and in the United States, the most common recipients of dental amalgam are low-income children of color, prisoners, military personnel, and Indian Health Service patients. Although the science behind the safety of these fillings is inconsistent, to date, approximately 40 countries have either completely banned the use of dental amalgam or set strict deadlines for their complete elimination. and 40 more countries are phasing out the use of mercury fillings in children. Women over 15 years of age, pregnant and breastfeeding. Discontinuing the use of dental amalgam will also impact the supply chain.
Most countries, including the United States, are working to phase out the use of dental amalgam, and although this COP-5 did not provide a specific date for complete phase-out, it is one positive outcome. is that countries need to develop plans for how to phase out mercury use. Pack your stuff and report to the conference.
More broadly, however, one of the reasons many countries have not made progress on this issue concerns the potential for litigation.
“It comes down to this issue of acknowledging that it was harmful to begin with,” Bell said. “We have strong defenses in our current position, so what we’re looking at here is a gradual position where we want to lower the position in stages and slowly reduce supply over time.”
In the long term, there is no firm date as to when that will happen, meaning it will not be discussed until the next round of negotiations in two years’ time.
However, there was one bright spot this week. World leaders acknowledged that the effects of mercury, particularly from mining, disproportionately impact indigenous peoples and agreed to increase the participation of indigenous peoples at future conferences. This is a vague reference to a possible funding mechanism to involve more Indigenous peoples in future negotiations, but it has important implications for future representatives.
“We are encouraged by the increased support from other countries and the recognition of our unique political status,” said Rochelle Diver, UN Environmental Treaty Coordinator at the International Indian Treaty Council. “Indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by legal and illegal gold mining, making future generations highly vulnerable to mercury’s toxic legacy.”
The next conference will be held in 2025.