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Science & Technology

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Santé. La lutte contre le mercure entre dans le concret

by Alexandra Chaignon

Health. The quest to control mercury becomes more concrete

Translated Tuesday 29 August 2017, by Meghan O’Shea

The international convention on reducing exposure to this highly toxic product officially goes into force today.

This is an historic date: today brings into effect the Minamata Convention on mercury, one of the ten most dangerous chemicals in the world.

The treaty did not come about without difficulty. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) initiated international negotiations on the subject in 2001. They lasted twelve years. In 2013, 128 countries, meeting in Japan, signed the final text. It remained to be ratified. To enter into force, 50 States had to do this. The European Union and seven of its Member States (Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden) gave the Convention the needed approval on 18 May, which allowed it to become effective on Wednesday, August 16.

Also forbidden in dental amalgams

It aims strictly to control the proliferation of mercury through human actions. It is named after the worst case of mercury poisoning in history, which occurred in Japan between 1949 and 1966, following the constant discharge of industrial wastewater into Minamata Bay, a small coastal town on Kyushu Island.

The first international environmental and health convention, it is legally binding on countries. It calls on governments to take specific measures to ensure the control of mercury emitted through human actions. Among other things, it bans new mercury mines, phases out existing mines, reduces emissions and uses of mercury, including in dental amalgams.

In concrete terms, countries that have ratified the Convention commit themselves definitively to abandon the use of mercury in products and manufacturing processes in order drastically to reduce the release of mercury into the environment.

"The world has reached an historic milestone in the fight against mercury poisoning," said the UNEP, which estimates that about 8,900 tonnes of mercury are emitted annually. These can occur naturally, such as through the erosion of mercury-containing rocks, forest fires and volcanic eruptions. However, the most significant emissions are as a result of processes of human origin, such as coal combustion and artisanal mining, including small-scale gold mining. Other sources of human-induced mercury pollution include the production of chlorine and certain plastics, waste incineration, pharmaceuticals, preservatives, paints and jewelry.

It singularly attacks the nervous system

"Today is a key moment in the fight against dangerous chemicals and their negative consequences on health and the environment," said Naoko Oshii, CEO of the Global Environment Facility on 18 May. This very toxic pollutant has been under fire for a long time. It singularly attacks the nervous system, the thyroid, the kidneys, the lungs, the immune system, the eyes... It can lead to memory loss and language impairment. "There are no safe levels of mercury exposure, everyone is at risk because this dangerous heavy metal has spread to the most remote parts of the world," emphasizes the UNEP. "In addition to dental amalgams", it continues, "it is found in everyday products such as cosmetics, light bulbs and batteries."

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