Experts: Global Treaty to Limit Mercury Needed

GENEVA, Switzerland, September 13, 2002 (ENS) - World governments should launch talks for a legally binding treaty to limit mercury damage to human and ecosystem health, an international group of 150 scientists advised today.

The Global Mercury Assessment Working Group of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) concluded a week long meeting in Geneva with the recommendation that governments negotiate a treaty. In the meantime, countries should reduce mercury risks by cutting or eliminating the production and consumption of the chemical by substituting other products and processes, they said.


Mercury is a toxic metal that is liquid at room temperature. (Photo courtesy Zyra)
Exposure to mercury is known to cause permanent damage to the brain, nervous system, and kidneys. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable as mercury may damage the developing fetus.

While mercury is released naturally from rocks, soil, and volcanoes, human activities have boosted atmospheric levels to some three times above pre-industrial levels, the experts say.

Estimates vary, but the UNEP group of experts says some 5,000 to 10,000 metric tons of mercury are thought to enter the atmosphere every year, 50 to 75 percent of it from human activities.

The main human source of mercury emissions is coal combustion from electrical power plants and industrial, commercial and residential burners. Other sources include municipal solid waste incineration, mining of non-ferrous metals, and artisanal gold mining.


Thermometers containing mercury (Photo credit unknown)
Mercury has been widely used in consumer products because it is an excellent conductor of electricity and is highly malleable. Products containing include thermometers, dental fillings, fluorescent lamps and other electrical equipment, and some batteries.

Mercury is used in several types of instruments common to electric utilities, municipalities and households, such as switches, barometers, meters, temperature gauges, pressure gauges and sprinkler system contacts.

It has been used as an ingredient in some pesticides and biocides, certain pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics such as skin lightening creams. In some countries, mercury has ritual religious uses.

People are most likely to be exposed to mercury by eating fish or shellfish contaminated with methylmercury, and many jurisdictions have issued fish consumption warnings based on the presence of mercury in fish.

People can be exposed when breathing vapors in air from spills, incinerators, and industries that burn fuels containing mercury.


Emissions from this factory in Northumberland, UK may contain mercury. (Photo courtesy Freefoto)
Mercury can be released from dental work or medical treatments, and dental or health service workers can be exposed from breathing contaminated workplace air or skin contact during use in the workplace.

When placed in landfills mercury can slowly seep into groundwater or evaporate into the air. It can travel over long distances and persist in the environment for lengthy periods of time.

Two studies released in March show that mercury generated by fossil fuel burning power plants is falling from the sky in Antarctica and in the Arctic, and is entering the food chain.

In addition to a legally binding mercury treaty, the Global Mercury Assessment Working Group urged governments to establish a non-binding global program of action, and strengthen cooperation among countries on information sharing, risk communication, assessment and related activities.

The Working Group recommended immediate action to enhance outreach to vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and provide technical and financial support to developing countries and to countries with economies in transition.

Increased research, monitoring and data collection on the health and environmental aspects of mercury and on environmentally friendly alternatives to the chemical are among the group's recommendations.

These recommendations and a detailed assessment report will be forwarded to UNEP's Governing Council which meets next February in Nairobi.


Worker checks the main coal fired furnace at Niagara Mohawk's Dunkirk steam station in New York. Burning coal for power produces emissions laced with mercury. (Photo by David Parsons courtesy NREL)
"These recommendations from the scientists and experts are the first essential step on the road to reducing and one day eliminating the environmental and health risks of mercury," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. "Now it is up to the politicians and policymakers to decide just where we go from here."

Based on the working group's scientific and technical advice, the Governing Council may adopt political decisions that will set the course for future global action on mercury.

Some countries are already taking action to deal with mercury pollution. The European Union faces a bill of up to 330 million euros (US$324 million) to dispose safely of excess mercury stocks from an obsolete method of chlorine production.

The U.S. Senate passed legislation earlier this month that would ban the sale of mercury fever thermometers anywhere in the United States.

In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed changing waste regulations for computers, televisions and mercury containing equipment to discourage the flow of these materials to municipal landfills and incinerators.

For more information about mercury see the Mercury Fact Sheet from the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at:

A U.S. nonprofit organization working to alert the public to the dangers of mercury is the Mercury Policy Project at:

The U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet on Mercury in Aquatic Ecosystems is at:

For more about the dental use of mercury visit Dental Amalgam Mercury Syndrome at: