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Oct. 2 --Some 57 years after the first patients were officially diagnosed in Minamata, Japan, countries are set in October to adopt and sign a global mercury treaty in the small Japanese city that continues to treat more than 2,200 people with mercury poisoning.
The treaty will lead to the global phaseout of mercury in a variety of products and processes over the next decade, eventually ban primary mining of mercury, and promote the use of new technologies in controlling emissions and releases from various industrial sources. Its terms were approved by global representatives at a conference in Geneva in January .
Japanese officials have expressed optimism about the treaty's prospects for success. Yet use of the substance is likely to continue in some parts of the world for decades to come, although its adverse impacts on humans and fauna and flora in industrialized countries may be limited, experts say.
That is why delegates to the Minamata Convention on Mercury conference will discuss, on the sidelines of the signing event, issues that were not debated in-depth in previous meetings, such as minimizing the number of countries that do not sign the treaty, creating guidelines on mercury supply, handling of mercury compounds, mercury release inventories, temporary and permanent storage arrangements, and management of contaminated areas, as well as drafting financial assistance mechanisms for developing nations, Yukari Takamura, a Nagoya University professor, said at a seminar in Tokyo earlier this year.
Takamura said the treaty's success depends substantially on how effectively developing economies regulate mercury, making richer countries' financial and technological assistance vital. She emphasized that the treaty must be closely coordinated with three others: the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal; the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade; and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
Because the treaty will apply to products and raw materials traded across borders, it also will have to be coordinated with World Trade Organization rules, she said.
The diplomatic conference on the Minamata Convention of Mercury, scheduled Oct. 9-11 in Mianamata City and Kumamoto City in the southern island of Kyushu, is expected to draw as many as 100 participants from more than 60 countries, Kuniaki Makiya, director of the Environmental Health and Safety Division of the Environmental Policy Bureau in Japan's Ministry of the Environment, said.
The convention, which was negotiated over four years, calls for a phaseout of mercury in a range of industrial and other products, including medical equipment such as thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs and batteries, and for emissions reductions from the mining, cement and coal power sectors. It addresses manufacturing, distribution, end-of-use disposal, atmospheric releases, and exports and imports.
The convention must be ratified by 50 countries to become legally binding.
An official of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's Chemical Substance Policy Division told BNA that Japan no longer uses mercury in industrial products and most manufacturing processes, and therefore the country's once-serious mercury threats as epitomized by so-called Minamata Disease had peaked years ago.
According to the United Nations Environment Program's “Global Mercury Assessment 2013,”Asia contributes almost half of global man-made mercury emissions, followed by Africa and South America. Major sources include mining, especially small-scale and micro-scale gold mining; coal burning; industrial activities that process ores to produce various metals; and industrial activities that process other raw materials to produce cement.
The convention is named after the southern Japanese town where industrial dumping of mercury in a nearby bay more than half a century ago poisoned thousands of people and has still not been fully cleaned up.
Japanese government-recognized patients with Minamata Disease, who qualify for government compensation, totaled more than 2,270 as of February 2012, according to Kumamoto Prefecture government data. But a more realistic number seems to be 20,000-30,000, based on the number of applications for government certification filed to the prefecture government.
Shigeru Takaoka, a neurophysician at Kyoritsu Hospital in Minamata City and a leading mercury poisoning expert, told Bloomberg BNA, “The treaty signing is a very welcome development but the more important thing is to make sure that global society does not commit the same mistake again as Japan did, and treat all victims which are believed to be many and increasing--so this signing event is only the beginning of many more difficult and complicated developments to come.”
Takaoka said he and other Japanese researchers have studied conditions in Brazil, Canada, China and Iraq over the years and affirmed their suspicions of serious mercury health damage to people and the environment. The experience, he said, convinced him that “Minamata Disease is not a local Japanese case: it is global and becoming more serious by the year as mercury is a global pollutant.” He said the data on the cost of mercury cleanup to be footed by governments, businesses and people has yet to be collected and calculated.
Some pilot projects for reducing mercury consumption, ensuring safe storage and other necessary measures are under way in accordance with UNEP instructions, according to a Japanese Environment Ministry official. They include mercury content reduction in products, technologies for discontinuing mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, guidelines for reducing atmospheric mercury release from coal-burning power stations, global mercury-related information exchange mechanisms, and technologies for reducing mercury use in cement production, he said. Another undertaking, which Japan organizes, is building international partnerships for safe mercury management and disposal, he said.
UNEP is urging signatories to the convention to ratify it quickly to give it legally binding power as soon as possible. However, Japan and many other countries will need to draft and enact new laws and regulations to accomplish that.
Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry requires entities to report mercury quantities above a certain threshold in products to be imported or exported, according to Mitsue Abe, a specialist in the ministry's Chemical Substance Control Division.
But mercury is not subject to any government regulations in Japan, such as the Chemical Management Law, the Chemical Evaluation Law, the Occupational Safety Law and dozens of other laws, as well as ministry ordinances and circulars, she said. As a result, the Japanese government is exploring drafting a new law on mercury. The situation is much the same in Asia, Africa and other emerging and developing economic regions, she said.
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UNEP's “Global Mercury Assessment 2013” is available at http://bit.ly/TCrYkr.
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