Global agreement needed on mercury pollution, says UN

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Governments need to accelerate the effort to deliver an international agreement on the poisonous heavy metal mercury Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said today.

Experts are becoming increasingly concerned that increased burning of coal-naturally contaminated with mercury-is leading to releases to the air in some parts of the world from where it can spread around the globe.

The soaring gold price may also be increasing mercury pollution locally and world-wide. The poisonous heavy metal is used to extract gold from ore in many artisanal mining operations which involve millions of workers and their families.

Mr Steiner, also a UN Under-Secretary General, said scientists have been warning about the dangers to human health, wildlife and the wider environment for well over a century.

'And it is true that many countries have, in recent decades, taken steps to reduce mercury uses and releases and to protect their citizens from exposure to this toxic heavy metal,' he added.

'However the fact remains that a comprehensive and decisive response to the global challenge of mercury is not in place and this needs to be urgently addressed,'said Mr Steiner.

Mercury is linked with a wide range of health effects including irreversible damage to the human nervous system including the brain and scientists have concluded there is no safe limit when it comes to mercury exposure.

Every person alive today-some 6.5 billion people- is thought to have at least trace levels of the heavy metal in their tissues.

Today governments and experts are meeting in Bangkok under the auspices of the UNEP's Chemicals Branch to discuss how best to reduce environmental sources of mercury with a range of options on the table from voluntary measures and initiatives up to legally binding treaties.

Their report will be presented to environment ministers meeting in February in Monaco attending UNEP's Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

UNEP is urging governments, working with industry and civil society, to begin setting 'clear and ambitious targets' to get global mercury levels down and to set the stage for mercury-free products and processes world-wide.

Such targets might include:

  • an agreement to phase-out mercury from products and processes, such as in the manufacture of medical equipment and in chlorine factories, with an aim of realizing mercury-free products by 2020.
  • Reductions in emissions from coal-fired power stations with the additional benefits of reduced greenhouse gases and improved local air quality.
  • Support for initiatives like those of the UN Industrial and Development Organization which has a goal to cut by 50 per cent the use of mercury in artisanal mining by 2017 en route to a total phase-out

'The global public has been watching and waiting for action-it is now time to start delivering it. This meeting, aimed at narrowing the options and resolving outstanding concerns, comes against a background of worries over rising levels of mercury emissions and releases in several key areas' said Mr Steiner.

UNEP's flagship report-the Global Environment Outlook-4-launched last month states that that coal burning and waste incineration account for about 70 per cent of the total quantified emissions of mercury.

'As combustion of fossil fuels is increasing, mercury emissions can be expected to increase, in the absence of control technologies or prevention,' says the GEO-4, the peer reviewed work of well over 1,000 scientists and experts.

Scientists are also testing suggestions that climate change may be triggering releases of new and re-activation of old deposits of mercury as a result of rising lake temperatures; erosion and the accelerated melting of permafrost, ice sheets and icebergs at the poles.

From here the mercury-in form known as methymercury- can enter the global food chain via marine mammals such as whales and seals and internationally caught and traded fish such as swordfish, shark, marlin, mackerel, walleye, sea bass and tuna.

The Bangkok 'Open-Ended Working Group' meeting-which will also be attended by industry and civil society groups- is expected to be followed up by a second one in late 2008.

Mr Steiner added:'I sincerely hope that at this second meeting, the international community can finally bring closure to the debate about the way forward and open a new chapter of clear, decisive, action on mercury-action that leads to the setting of clear and ambitious targets in order to deliver measurable reductions to protect human health and the wider environment'.

'There is no real reason to wait on many of the mercury fronts. Viable alternatives exist for virtually all products containing mercury and industrial processes using mercury,' he added.

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