On Saturday 19th January, 2013, in Geneva, during the Global Mercury Treaty meeting, although environmental activists lamented, delegations from some 140 countries, including Seychelles, agreed to adopt a ground-breaking treaty limiting the use and emissions of health-hazardous mercury.
The world’s first legally binding treaty on mercury, reached after a week of thorny talks, aims to reduce global emission levels of the toxic heavy metal also known as quicksilver, which poses risks to human health and the environment.
Seychelles was represented at the meeting by Mr. Vivian Radegonde, Principal Chemist of the Seychelles Bureau of Standards (SBS).
“This was a herculean task…but we have succeeded,” Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and head of the UN environment programme (UNEP), told reporters in Geneva.
“It is quite remarkable how much mercury in a sense has entered into use in our lives….We’ve been creating a terrible legacy,” said Mr. Steiner.
“Mercury accumulates in the food chain through fish…It is released through coal fired power stations and it travels sometimes thousands of kilometers. It affects the Inuit in Canada just as it affects the small-scale artisanal gold miner somewhere in southern Africa,” he added.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury treaty, named in honor of the Japanese town, Minamata, where inhabitants for decades have suffered the consequences of serious mercury contaminated fish. The text will be signed Minamata in October 2013 in a Diplomatic Conference and will take effect once it has been ratified by 50 countries – something organizers expect will take three to four years.
Mercury is found in products ranging from electrical switches, thermometers, sphygmomanometers and light-bulbs, to amalgam dental fillings and even facial creams. A large amount of the heavy metal is released from small-scale gold mining, coal-burning power plants, metal smelters and cement production.
Mercury poisoning seriously affects the body’s immune system and development of the brain and nervous system, posing the greatest risk to foetuse and infants. The treaty sets a phase our date of 2020 for a long line of products, including mercury thermometers, blood pressure measuring devices (sphygmomanometers), most batteries, switches, some kinds of fluorescent lamps and soaps and cosmetics.
It however provides exceptions for some large medical measuring devices where no mercury-free alternatives exist yet. In a controversial move, Tim Kasten, head of UNEP’s chemicals division explained that the treaty also excluded vaccines that use mercury as a preservative, since the risk from these vaccines is considered low and for many developing nations removing them would entail losing access to vaccines altogether.
The dentist groups also pointed out that the treaty did not also provide a cut-off date for the use of dental fillings using mercury, but did agree that the product should be phased down.