After four years of negotiation, more than 140 countries have adopted the first legally binding international agreement to control mercury emissions through a number of rules that place limits on power plants and industrial boilers as well as phase out products, such as batteries and thermometers, that use the toxic metal.
The treaty, which was adopted in Geneva, establishes controls and sets reduction targets across a range of products, processes and industries where the toxic metal is used, released or emitted, the United Nations said. Mercury emissions, which come from sources such as coal burning and small-scale gold mining, and mercury pollution from discarded electronic and other consumer products, is a global threat to environmental health, according to UNEP’s Global Mercury Assessment 2013.
Under the treaty, governments have agreed to ban the production, export and import of a range of mercury-containing products by 2020. The products include switches and relays, certain types of fluorescent lamps, soaps and cosmetics and batteries of all types, with the exception of button-cell batteries used in implantable medical devices. Certain non-electric medical devices containing mercury, such as thermometers and blood pressure devices, are also included for phase-out by 2020.
Countries signing onto the treaty have agreed to control mercury emissions and releases from large industrial facilities ranging from coal-fired power stations and industrial boilers to certain kinds of smelters handling materials such as zinc and gold.
Nations with smale-scale gold mining operations will be required to draw up national plans within three years of the treaty entering into force to reduce, and if possible, eliminate the use mercury.
The treaty, which will be signed at a special meeting in Japan this October, also establishes rules for direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury. Japan, Norway and Switzerland have pledged funds to fast-track action until the treaty comes into force over the next three to five years, the UN said.
While the treaty is viewed as a positive step forward, it will not bring immediate reductions of mercury emissions and will have to be strengthened to make all fish, which concentrate mercury in their bodies, safe to eat, said David Lennett from the Natural Resources Defense Council representing the Zero Mercury Working Group, a global coalition of environmental NGOs.
A UNEP study released earlier this month found mercury pollution in the top layer of the world’s oceans has doubled in the past century, and that hundreds of tons of mercury have leaked from the soil into rivers and lakes around the world.