Minamata convention treaty seeks to reduce mercury pollution

September 27, 2013 by Bob Yirka report
Element mercury (Hg), liquid form. Credit: Wikipedia.

(Phys.org) —People from 140 countries across the globe will be signing a treaty this month—its purpose is to reduce the amount of man-made mercury pollution being released into the environment. The treaty signing follows meetings by representatives that have previously agreed to sign it—the signing will be held in Minamat Japan—site of one of the largest mercury spills in history. David Krabbenhoft and Elsie Sunderland of the U.S. Geological Survey and Harvard University respectively, have published a Perspective piece in the journal Science, on the treaty and the many issues surrounding the use of mercury and the problems it can cause. Contributing correspondent for the same journal, Lizzie Wade has also published an article describing the single worst mercury polluting offenders—artesian miners—and the difficulties in getting them to stop their practices.

Global warming has filled the headlines for years, outshined in the press but still as ominous, however, is the growing problem of . Like global warming, it's not an easy problem to solve and likely won't be for decades, if not centuries. This is because once mercury gets into the environment it can take hundreds of years to make its way to non-harmful places, such as silt in the bottom of the ocean.

Over the past couple of centuries, mercury has made its way into the environment primarily due to burning coal to make electricity. Most of that mercury is still here with us—once in the atmosphere it is brought down to land when it rains making its way into the soil. Fires can cause it to move back into the atmosphere and floods or heavy watering can cause it to travel through the into streams, rivers, lakes and the oceans, some of which makes it back into the atmosphere through . Fortunately, scientists have realized the dangers posed by mercury (, , etc.) and the result has been a major decrease in the amounts of mercury emitted by coal firing plants and other sources. Sadly, as Wade describes, such sources have recently been replaced by individuals using mercury as an aid to small operation gold and silver mining. They are now the single largest source of mercury polluters, and little is being done to stop them. Most such are poor and rely on the small amounts of precious metals they are able to extract from mud in remote places such as villages in Peru or parts of Asia.

The treaty being signed in Minamata aims to curb such practices, but is largely symbolic. For now, the only way to stop the practice appears to be offering miners a better alternative, and thus far, it seems no one has come up with one.

Explore further: Mercury releases into the atmosphere from ancient to modern times

More information: Global Change and Mercury, Science 27 September 2013: Vol. 341 no. 6153 pp. 1457-1458 DOI: 10.1126/science.1242838

More than 140 nations recently agreed to a legally binding treaty on reductions in human uses and releases of mercury that will be signed in October of this year. This follows the 2011 rule in the United States that for the first time regulates mercury emissions from electricity-generating utilities. Several decades of scientific research preceded these important regulations. However, the impacts of global change on environmental mercury concentrations and human exposures remain a major uncertainty affecting the potential effectiveness of regulatory activities.

Related Stories

Researchers warn of legacy mercury in the environment

July 8, 2013

Environmental researchers at Harvard University have published evidence that significant reductions in mercury emissions will be necessary just to stabilize current levels of the toxic element in the environment. So much ...

Study says Natives most affected by Amazon mercury

September 10, 2013

A study of mercury contamination from rampant informal gold mining in Peru's Amazon says indigenous people who get their protein mostly from fish are the most affected, particularly their children.

Investigating mercury pollution in Indonesia

September 25, 2013

Professor Takanobu Inoue of Toyohashi Tech's Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering has been conducting field surveys of mercury poisoning in Indonesia for over a decade. His findings have serious implications ...

Recommended for you

Ocean acidification makes coralline algae less robust

February 8, 2016

Ocean acidification (the ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earth's oceans, caused by the uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere), is affecting the formation of the skeleton of coralline algae which play an important part in marine ...

In the Southern Ocean, a carbon-dioxide mystery comes clear

February 3, 2016

Twenty thousand years ago, when humans were still nomadic hunters and gatherers, low concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere allowed the earth to fall into the grip of an ice age. But despite decades of research, ...

Online shopping might not be as green as we thought

February 5, 2016

Logic suggests that online shopping is "greener" than traditional shopping. After all, when people shop from home, they are not jumping into their cars, one by one, to travel to the mall or the big box store.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.