UN Global Mercury Treaty: Almost a step in the right direction - No longer a business-as-usual approach but essentially another paper tiger

Pietermaritzburg, 22 January 2013 – The world now has the text for a legally binding mercury treaty, which was decided upon by more than 140 countries this past weekend in Geneva at the fifth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC5) [1] to prepare a global legally binding instrument on mercury. The message is clear that the approach towards mercury pollution will be different in the future, however, there is concern that it does not include enough immediate measures and all factors that the globe will need to eliminate the threat of mercury.

Various positive outcomes will result from the treaty. Mercury in sphygmomanometers and thermometers will be phased out by 2020, and, the dental sector will have focused strategies which countries can and should be able to make best use of to advance their mercury elimination work.

These mercury-based medical devices are already phased-out or being phased out in South Africa (in the Private Healthcare Sector and the KwaZulu Natal Provincial Healthcare Sector), the United States, Europe, Argentina, Chile, Philippines, Mongolia and several other developing countries. The treaty will expand and scale-up this phase-out globally. The legally-binding agreement will also phase out many other products that use the toxic liquid metal such as batteries, switches, and some fluorescent lamps, through banning global import and exports of these by 2020.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) had previously issued a policy in 2005 calling for the gradual phase-out of mercury-based thermometers and blood pressure devices together with their substitution with viable alternatives. Dr Maria Neira, Director, of the WHO's Department of Public Health and the Environment said, "Today we are extremely pleased that the world's governments have agreed to such a phase-out. This will have a major benefit for global health."

The treaty also contains a specific provision on health. This article calls for health monitoring, education and training of the health sector about mercury impacts. It recognizes that mercury is both an environment and health issue — as does the entire treaty — but that the health sector has an important role to play in the treaty's implementation.

However, despite improvements to the global approach towards mercury, groundWork [2] and its global partners (Health Care Without Harm [3] and ZMWG [4]) remain very concerned that while the treaty is taking important steps forward, several major sources of mercury emissions are not adequately addressed and will continue relatively unabated, negatively impacting public health. These include artisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM) which is the largest source of mercury emissions, and mercury emitted from point sources such as coal-fired power plants, certain kinds of smelters for zinc and gold, and cement plants.

Both sectors continue to grow as ASGM continues to proliferate in countries as the price of gold steadily increases near the $1700 mark fuelling the greatest gold rush the world has ever seen, and in countries like South Africa, China, Turkey and India that are planning building coal-fired power stations at a rapid rate. Significantly, the treaty does not provide a clear mechanism to support the transition away from mercury for small scale gold miners, who use mercury in refining gold.

For new emission sources the treaty will require countries building coal-fired power plants to install Best Available Techniques / Best Environmental Practices (BAT/BEP) filters and scrubbers on new plants and to commit to reducing emissions from existing operations to prevent mercury from coal reaching the atmosphere. For existing sources of highly polluting industry such as Eskom's coal-fired power stations with expected operating lifetimes of many decades, countries will only have to implement a choice of voluntary measures from a menu of options to reduce emissions.

The lack of political will for existing sources is very disappointing as this treaty will not bring immediate reductions of mercury emissions and will continue to compromise the health of global populations. Populations that are reliant on fish are also at a particularly high risk of consuming large amounts of mercury and consequently suffering from severe health impacts.

Rico Euripidou, groundWork's Environmental Health Campaigner, said: "Governments' commitment to adopt and implement this treaty will need to be strengthened during future meetings to make all fish safe to eat, and more broadly, to create healthier environments".

Furthermore the current treaty text does not require the identification and clean-up of contaminated sites such as the Thor Chemicals site in KwaZulu Natal. The text does not give guidance on a health-protective value that defines waste as hazardous nor does it require minimizing or preventing the generation of mercury-containing waste. Because action on contaminated sites is not obligatory, it is likely that no funding will be available through the treaty's financial mechanism to identify or clean up contaminated sites.

The signing of this treaty is expected to take place in October in Japan and ratified over the next two to five years.


[1] Background to the fifth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC5) to prepare a global legally binding instrument on mercury - http://unep.org/hazardoussubstances/Mercury/Negotiations/INC5/tabid/3471/Default.aspx

[2] groundWork is an environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa, and increasingly Southern Africa, on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Air Quality, Climate and Energy Justice, Waste and Environmental Health. groundWork is the South African member of the following international organizations: Friends of the Earth International, Zero Mercury Working Group and Health Care Without Harm.

[3] Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are co-leading a global initiative to achieve virtual elimination of mercury-based thermometers and sphygmomanometers over the next decade and their substitution with accurate, economically viable alternatives -  http://www.noharm.org/http://www.who.int/en/.

[4] The Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) is an international coalition of over 100 public interest NGOs from more than 50 countries founded by the European Environmental Bureau and Mercury Policy Project, in 2005 to achieve 'Zero' emissions, demand and supply of mercury www.zeromercury.org

Useful resources

1.       UNEP. 2013. Global mercury assessment2013: Sources, emissions, releases and environmental transport: http://www.unep.org/publications/contents/pub_details_search.asp?ID=6282

2.       UNEP. 2013. Mercury: Time to acthttp://www.unep.org/publications/contents/pub_details_search.asp?ID=6281


Rico Euripidou, Environmental Health Campaigner at groundWork + 27 (0) 33 342 5662 /+27 (0) 83 519 3008, or rico@groundwork.org.za

Megan Lewis, Media and Information Campaigner at groundWork + 27 (0) 33 342 5664/+27 (0)83 450 5541, or megan@groundwork.org.za