As the mercury falls in Geneva at the advent of autumn, the world is gathering for the first time to deal with the rising health impacts of the toxic chemical.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury entered into force last month. The first conference of the parties is being held from 24-29 September in the Swiss city. The goal is to accelerate action on controlling mercury emissions from industry, banning new mercury mining, and reducing mercury use in gold mining.
“The Minamata Convention shows that our global work to protect our planet and its people can continue to bring nations together,” says UN Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim.
This concerted international action under the convention, which has 128 signatories, comes not a moment too soon. Human activities have doubled the amount of mercury in the top 100 metres of the oceans in the last 100 years, and we continue to release an estimated 2,960 tonnes every year.
The very name of the convention, taken from the worst mercury poisoning disaster in history, highlights the damage that the neurotoxin can cause.
In May 1956, following decades of dumping of industrial wastewaters into Minamata Bay, Japan, villagers who ate fish and shellfish from the waters suffered convulsions, psychosis, loss of consciousness and coma. 900 people died. 2,265 people were certified as suffering from mercury poisoning.
While there has not been a repeat of such a dramatic and localized incident, problems persist today across the globe. The health threat is particularly grave for unborn children and infants.
The problem is bioaccumulation. As inorganic mercury in our air, soil and water enters the oceans, aquatic microbes convert it to methylmercury – a form readily absorbed by sea life. At every step in the food chain, methylmercury loads increase. And at the top of that food chain, more often than not, is us.
Other moves are afoot to address sources of pollution, including mercury. UN Environment is releasing a new report, Towards a Pollution-Free Planet, at the Minamata meeting. It lays out the scale of the challenge and points to solutions, which the UN Environment Assembly will take up later this year.
Getting rid of mercury - video