Global mercury convention agreed by UN [CORRECTION]

International negotiators have concluded a global treaty aimed at reducing mercury pollution and use of mercury in mining and industry, which will be signed in Japan in October.

International negotiators have concluded a global treaty aimed at reducing mercury pollution and use of mercury in mining and industry, which will be signed in Japan in October.

Following four years of talks co-ordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the detailed convention tries to limit the exposure of humans and nature to mercury, from mining to waste disposal.

The agreement will also commit governments to limiting mercury pollution from non-ferrous metal smelters, including lead, zinc, copper and gold production.

The maximum allowed intensity of emissions will be agreed by the first meeting of the conference of the parties to the treaty, once it is in force.

The negotiations were completed late on Friday January 19 in Geneva and the final text includes commitments on trading mercury; rules for mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining; limiting products containing mercury; and preventing airborne mercury emissions.

Most of these steps will be taken by 2020 by the 140 UN member countries involved.

UNEP under-secretary general and executive director Achim Steiner said the treaty was a historic step forward.

“Nations have laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognised for well over a century. Everyone […] stands to benefit […] 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,” he said.

Looking at the treaty’s commitments in detail, governments have agreed to ban by 2020 the use of mercury in batteries, (except button-cell batteries used in implantable medical devices); switches and relays; certain types of compact fluorescent lamps; cold cathode fluorescent lamps; external electrode fluorescent lamps; thermometers; blood pressure devices; soaps; and cosmetics.

Other exceptions allowed by the treaty while there are no alternatives to mercury include some large measuring devices; vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative; products used in religious or traditional activities; and dental fillings using mercury amalgam – although governments agreed to “phase-down” this use.

As for mining, governments have promised to draft strategies to reduce the amount of mercury used by small-scale miners. And those countries with artisanal and small-scale gold mining will within three years of the treaty coming into force propose national plans reducing and where possible eliminating mercury use in these industries. Public awareness campaigns and support for using mercury-free alternatives will form part of these plans.

A UNEP note said that the driving through of the treaty was partly in response to heightened concerns over mercury pollution from artisanal mining.

“The booming price of gold in recent years has triggered a significant growth in small-scale mining where mercury is used to separate gold from the ore-bearing rock,” it said.

The treaty also sets targets for the reduction of mercury emissions from coal-fired power stations, waste incineration, industrial boilers and cement clinker facilities. Negotiators agreed to install best available technologies on new power plants and facilities to ensure this happens.

The treaty will be called the Minamata Convention on Mercury, named after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred through mercury pollution in the last century.

The World Bank-linked Global Environment Facility (GEF) will help fund implementation of the treaty.

This article was amended on February 1 so as not to mention manganese as a metal covered by the convention. The UN’s global mecury convention does not apply to manganese because its provisions do not apply to ore and concentrate streams that contain naturally occurring levels of mercury.

For this reason, the original version of the article above (published on January 23 2013) erred in stating that: “The agreement will commit governments to limiting mercury pollution from non-ferrous metal smelters, including lead, zinc, gold, copper and manganese.”

The exclusion of manganese was the result of successful industry lobbying at the 5th UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee Meeting as this body was preparing the UN’s global, legally binding instrument on mercury (INC5).

The final text of the instrument states that the supply and trade provisions do not apply to: “Naturally occurring trace quantities of mercury or mercury compounds present in such products as non-mercury metals, ores, or mineral products, including coal, or products derived from these materials, and unintentional trace quantities in chemical products”.

More importantly, for air emissions, relevant sources are defined as those listed in an annex to the convention. The point source categories listed include: “Smelting and roasting processes used in the production of non-ferrous metals [where a footnote defines non-ferrous metals as lead, zinc, copper and industrial gold].”

There is no mention of manganese at all in the text.

Keith Nuthall

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