Agreement reached for global mercury ban by 2020
A key meeting in Switzerland yesterday saw the adoption of a new convention that will see a total ban on mercury by 2020.
The decision will allow local small and medium miners in Guyana, who are heavily dependent on mercury in the processing, to breathe easier.
The 147 countries participating in the end of the fifth and final round of negotiations, taking four years in total, agreed to ban mercury in thermometers, batteries and energy-saving light bulbs by 2020. For the moment, the treaty excludes vaccines using mercury as preservative. Dental fillings using mercury amalgam will be phased down, according to the UN Environment Programme.
Countries will have to install filters and scrubbers on coal-fired power stations and make sure no mercury is released during copper and gold mining. Gold mining, where mercury is used to extract gold from ore, will be largely affected.
The opening of new mercury mines will be prohibited, and existing ones would have to be closed over time, Franz Perrez, head of the Swiss delegation told the state’s news agency.
In addition to mining, mercury, a toxic metal, is also used in computers.
There have been several meetings in Guyana and a delegation comprising representatives from the Natural Resources Ministry; the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission, and the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association reportedly represented Guyana, in Switzerland.
With gold being the biggest earner for Guyana amidst high prices worldwide, local miners were extremely worried that a total ban on mercury now would force them out of business as it would cost them enormous sums to introduce new mining practices, as an alternative.
The convention adopted yesterday addresses the mining, processing and storing of the heavy metal, which is highly toxic to living organisms. Mercury is dispersed worldwide after being released into the air or washed into rivers and oceans. Humans are poisoned by inhaling the vapours or eating contaminated fish.
“After complex and often all-night sessions here in Geneva, nations have today laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized for well over a century,” Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, said at the close of the meeting.
Perrez told Swissinfo that he expects the convention, which was concluded thanks to Switzerland’s persistent efforts, to come into force in three to five years, once the individual countries have ratified the treaty. A signing ceremony will be held later this year.
Banned by 2020
Every year, 2,000 tonnes of mercury arising from human activities such as coal-fired power plants and gold mining are emitted into the atmosphere, according to the Swiss department of the environment. The heavy metal is found at the site of contamination but because of its extreme volatility also at locations far from its original source.
The ban will particularly affect artisanal gold mining, which – triggered by booming gold prices – has become a lucrative source of income in countries such as Thailand, Peru and Senegal over recent years. At the same time it poses large risks to the miners, their families and surrounding communities, who often are not aware of the health effects.
“Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva – 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,” Steiner stated.
When mercury accumulates in the bodies of living organisms, it can cause disorders of the nervous, immune and reproductive systems. In a worst case, severe mercury poisoning can lead to insanity, paralysis, coma and death within weeks.
According to a study by UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), small-scale gold mining is responsible for about a third of mercury emissions.
Nations with small-scale mining will have to reduce and eliminate the use of mercury, raise public awareness and support mercury-free alternatives.
But it will not be impossible, Perrez said, for countries to develop alternatives as there will support from the Global Environment Facility and additional programmes.
Initial funding to fast track action until the new treaty comes into force has been pledged by Japan, Norway and Switzerland.
The country was particularly keen to adopt a convention as Switzerland plays a major role in gold refining and trading. Most of the gold produced in the world physically transits Swiss refineries. In 2011, over 2,600 metric tons of raw gold were imported into the country.
“This treaty will not bring immediate reductions of mercury emissions. It will need to be improved and strengthened, to make all fish safe to eat,” said David Lennett from the Natural Resources Defense Council representing the Zero Mercury Working Group, a global coalition of environmental NGOs. “Still, the treaty will phase out mercury in many products and we welcome it as a starting point.”
The convention will be formally adopted in Minimata in October 2013 as a tribute to the inhabitants of the Japanese city.
Between 1932 and 1968 a chemical company had discharged contaminated wastewater, poisoning fish and sea sediments and causing a neurological syndrome called Minamata disease, which killed more than 3,000 people.