More than 140 nations gathered in Geneva for a UN forum agreed [press release] on Saturday to a legally binding treaty addressing the use of mercury, a metal that is infamous for its detrimental effects on health and the environment. The treaty, named the Minamata Convention on Mercury for a city in Japan that has incurred serious damage as a result of mercury, will regulate and control any products and processes that involve the use of mercury. Examples of products and processes that will be regulated are medical equipment, light bulbs, mining, cement and coal-powered sectors. Some products, such as thermometers and blood pressure devices containing mercury, are scheduled to be phased out by 2020. UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) [official website] Executive Director Achim Steiner was pleased with the agreement, saying
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. I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible.The treaty has been in the works for four years and will be available for signature in October at a special UN meeting in Japan.
The adverse effects of mercury on health and the environment have been a growing concern in recent years. Earlier this month, UNEP released its annual Global Mercury Assessment [text, PDF], which gave the most recent information on global mercury emissions and its effects on health and the environment. The report showed an increase in emissions in the industrial sector since 2005. Last year Human Rights Watch [advocacy website] released a report showing that children working in Mali mines were suffering from severe health issues [JURIST report] due to inhalation of mercury. In 2008 two US federal courts ruled on issues involving mercury and its health effects on consumers and the environment. In one, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] ruled that US Food and Drug Association [official website] regulations did not preempt a woman from suing a tuna company for injuries sustained from mercury that was in a can of tuna she ate. In the other case, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit [official website] ruled [JURIST report] that a "cap-and-trade" policy that would have allowed power plants to trade "credits" for mercury emission was invalid.