Reversing the policy of the G.W. Bush administration, the U.S. Joined 140 nations adopting the first legally binding treaty to reduce mercury emissions. A signing ceremony will be held in Japan later in the year after which it will take 50 nations to ratify.
Fifty percent of mercury emissions come from volcanoes. Some anthropogenic sources are thermometers, the infamous CFL light bulb, dental fillings, facial cream, small scale gold mining, cement production and coal-burning power plants.
The hat making industry long ago dispensed with mercury after learning the use of mercury-based compounds resulted in mad hatters. Some countries have already banned mercury-containing thermometers. The CFL light bulb probably won’t wind up in the dust bin of history. For one thing a dust bin is not the recommended way of disposing of the bulb plus the greens love it. Dental amalgam which is composed of several metals including mercury, will probably be phased out under the UN Treaty even though the FDA in 2009 reaffirmed its position that dental amalgam is safe.
Given the soaring value of gold, small-scale gold mining, a.k.a. Artisanal Gold Mining, is going on at a frenetic pace, mostly in Africa. Crude and unsafe processes are used often employing hand tools and child labor. The Artisanal Gold Council estimates that as many as 15 million people work in the sector which produces about 20 percent of the total gold supply. Mercury is used in the process to separate gold from rock and silt. The worker inhales gaseous mercury and mercury waste runs off into the water supply. This, unlike many of the other sources of mercury emissions, is something that urgently needs to be reformed.
The ace up the sleeve of this UN treaty is the regulation of coal-burning power plants, the real target. Face creams and dental fillings are negligible add-ons. Small-scale goldmining is often done illegally so reforms are unlikely to occur. If this treaty is ratified, the UN will have the power to regulate coal-burning power plants under the aegis of regulating mercury emissions. At its inception, the treaty will give existing facilities 10 years to meet pollution control standards. Once the UN is granted regulatory and enforcement power, who knows what comes next.
“Adoption of a global legal agreement on mercury is a major accomplishment,” said Michael T. Bender, co-coordinator of the Zero Mercury Working Group. “Yet the instrument is hampered by weak controls on mercury emissions from major sources like coal-fired power plants.”
For instance, new facilities will not be required to have mercury pollution controls for 5 years after the treaty enters into force, with existing facilities given 10 years before they begin their control efforts.
Yet ZMWG says there are bright spots in the treaty. These include provisions to reduce trade, prohibit the primary mining of mercury, and phase out the toxic element in most products containing mercury, like thermometers, measuring devices and batteries.
“Some of these steps were unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Now, alternatives exist for most all products containing mercury,” said Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, of European Environmental Bureau and co-coordinator of ZMWG. “The treaty sends the right market signal and will eventually lead to less exposures worldwide.”
The treaty also addresses artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), which is both the largest intentional use of mercury globally, and is the largest emission source.
“While national action plans will foster reduced use of mercury in ASGM, the treaty fails to include a provision to require an eventual end to this polluting practice,” said Richard Gutierrez, Ban Toxics! Director from the Philippines. “With the current text, it seems that mercury use in ASGM may go on indefinitely.”
The treaty has been in the works for many years. The Bush administration insisted on a “voluntary partnership” approach under any international treaty on mercury regulation. That was then. This is the beginning of Obama’s second term. There’s change blowing in the wind. Hold on to your hats.
BTW, Mercury poisoning is listed as a “rare disease” by the National Institutes of Health. This means that mercury poisoning affects less than 200,000 people in the US population.