GENEVA, Switzerland, January 26, 2013 (ENS) – A worldwide ban on the manufacture, export and import of batteries and other products that contain mercury will be in place by 2020 under the provisions of the world’s first treaty agreed by 147 governments at a United Nations forum in Geneva.

Mercury and most of its compounds are highly toxic to humans, animals and ecosystems. High doses can be fatal to humans, but even relatively low doses can seriously affect the nervous system and have been linked with possible harmful effects on the cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems.

Minamata, mercury

Photos of mercury poisoning victims at the Minamata Museum (Photo by Puangthao)

In the presence of bacteria, mercury can change into methylmercury, its most toxic form. Methylmercury easily passes through both the placenta and the blood-brain barrier, so exposure of women of child-bearing age and of children, is of greatest concern.

On the treaty’s list of products to be banned are soaps and cosmetics containing mercury, switches and relays, certain types of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps.

Certain kinds of non-electronic medical devices such as thermometers and blood pressure devices are also marked for phase-out by 2020.

Exceptions were made for ‘button cell’ batteries used in implantable medical devices, vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative, as have products used in religious or traditional activities.

Global and legally-binding, the Minamata Convention on Mercury was reached Jan. 19 after “complex and often all-night sessions,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environmental Programme, UNEP, which convened the talks.

The treaty takes its name from Japan’s Minamata Bay, contaminated with some 27 tons of deadly organic mercury from industrial waste from 1932 to 1968.

More than 2,000 people who ate fish from the bay have died and over 10,000 others have received financial compensation from Chisso, the petrochemical and plastics factory that discharged the mercury, according to Japan’s National Institute for Minamata Disease.

Minamata Memorial

Minamata Memorial 水俣
At night, a light from underneath illuminates each of the chrome spheres, which represent the souls of those poisoned by the methyl mercury that got into the bay. (Photo and caption by anaguma)

“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 said.

Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for Environment, agrees. “This new treaty will bring benefits to all populations around the world, including the citizens of the EU, given the long distances that mercury can travel in the air.”

“Pregnant women, infants and children are at particular risk from mercury in the food-chain,” he said, “and this treaty will bring about significant decreases to their exposure to this toxic substance.”

Mercury circulates through land, water, and the atmosphere, and its chemical form changes in each domain, explains Yoshiaki Yasuda, Department of International Affairs and Environmental Sciences, National Institute for Minamata Disease, Ministry of the Environment, Japan.

The new treaty covers all phases of the mercury cycle, from primary mining to waste disposal, including trade provisions, rules for artisanal and small scale gold mining, products containing mercury and mercury emissions to air.

It calls for pinpointing populations at risk, boosting medical care and better training of health care professionals in identifying and treating the effects.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury covers the direct mining of mercury, as well as export and import of the metal, and safe storage of waste mercury.

It places controls on mercury and mercury reductions in products, processes and industries ranging from medical equipment such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs, to the cement and coal-fired power sectors.

Using mercury to extract gold poses health risks to artisanal miners and the treaty covers this use.

mercury wheat

1950s American farmers mixed clean grain with wheat seed treated with the fungicide, methylmercury. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration seized 4.5 million pounds of the mixture and developed rapid tests for mercury. The pink wheat kernels were treated. (Photo courtesy FDA)

And when issues arise in the future, there is a provision in the agreement for future development so that further action can be taken.

“The new treaty is a forceful driver towards a comprehensive mercury phase-out, and we are proud to see that many EU concepts and ideas have made its way into the text,” Commissioner Potocnik.

Early adoption of the Minamata Convention is high on his agenda.

“The EU has fought for a global mercury treaty for almost seven years – and now we are there,” Potocnik said. “We have reached a robust, balanced and dynamic environmental agreement.”

Steiner said nations “have laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized for well over a century.”

“I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible,” he said.

But both men know it will take time to reduce levels of mercury in the environment.

“Whilst the EU has an overarching strategy for controlling mercury at all stages of the mercury life-cycle, such controls are unfortunately lacking in many parts of the world,” said Potocnik.

“It would be unrealistic,” said the commissioner, “to expect more than 100 countries around the world, with economies and living conditions significantly different to those of European citizens, to simply live up to our environmental standards here and now.”