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Countries reject global mercury treaty

February 28, 2005 By Roxanne Khamsi This article courtesy of Nature News.

UN meeting decides on voluntary actions rather than export bans.

A week-long meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, has failed to devise a global treaty to curb the production of mercury. Instead, governments agreed to monitor mercury trade more formally and to encourage voluntary actions to reduce its use.

The lack of a legally binding pact to regulate this harmful heavy metal has led environment groups to label the UN Environment Programme's Governing Council meeting a "missed chance".

At the beginning of the meeting, which was held from 21 to 25 February, representatives from European countries promoted the idea of a treaty to ban the export of mercury completely. But the United States championed the development of voluntary partnerships to help countries improve their mercury management.

It is clear from past experience that partnerships generally have not worked.
Michael Bender
Head of the Mercury Policy Project based in Montpelier, Vermont
Its approach left environmental campaigners unimpressed. "The United States was proposing only soft measures that did not include concrete actions," says Elena Lymberidi of the non-governmental European Environmental Bureau.

But Lou Fintor, spokesman for the US Department of State, defends voluntary agreements. “We believe an aggressive global strategy such as the one we have proposed will be faster at achieving real reductions than negotiating an international binding agreement on mercury,” he says.

"Voluntary agreements allow situations to evolve much more rapidly than legislation," agrees Peter Whippy, communications manager at Euro Chlor, an organization that represents European chlorine producers and is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Nervy metal

As a toxic heavy metal, mercury can cause neurological damage in humans and is fatal at extremely high doses. Researchers have linked it to learning difficulties and abnormal fetal development in the past. And it is pervasive: scientists have estimated that 8% of American women have mercury levels above those considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency1.

The main sources of mercury in the environment include coal-fire power stations and chlorine-production plants, as well as gold and silver mines. Once released, the heavy metal pollutes water, and can enter the food chain.

Some countries have already begun phasing out the use of mercury in industrial processes. The European Union's executive arm has proposed banning mercury exports from the European bloc by 2011. This will probably receive final approval by early summer, according to Lymberidi.

But mercury can travel easily from one corner of the globe to another through natural cycling, and this underlines the importance of an international approach.

Unknown impact

February's agreement asks the UN Environment Programme, to prepare a report detailing the supply of, trade in and demand for mercury. It also requests that governments and the private sector work with non-governmental organizations to reduce mercury pollution and associated risks for human health.

That formalizes the partnerships suggested by the United States. But the non-binding nature of the agreement makes its impact uncertain. "We really need to see how governments will respond to the requests," says Kevin Brigden, a scientist from Greenpeace.

Other representatives of non-governmental organizations are less optimistic. "While it is difficult to predict progress, it is clear from past experience that partnerships, especially in developing countries, generally have not worked," says Michael Bender, head of the Mercury Policy Project, based in Montpelier, Vermont.

The governments at the meeting will review the success of these partnerships in two years, at which point they may reconsider the idea of a legally-binding agreement.


  1. Schober S. E., et al. JAMA 289, 1667 - 1674 (2003).


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