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The entry into force of the Minamata Convention on Mercury Aug. 16 will spur companies worldwide to restrict their use of mercury and pursue alternatives to mercury added products.
The convention seeks to protect human health and curb environmental contamination by obligating its parties to broadly limit the use and export of mercury and restrict mercury emissions into the air, soil, and water.
The legally binding treaty—named after Japan’s Minamata Bay where industrial pollution led to widespread mercury poisoning in the 1950s—requires its signatories to phase out many common mercury-added products by 2020 and mercury-bearing processes by 2025. The U.S. and the European Union are among the 74 participants of the Minamata Convention, which also includes China, the world’s largest producer of mercury.
“The treaty is designed to foster a simultaneous reduction in global mercury demand and supply,” said Michael Bender, director of the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project.
Inorganic mercury can become the more toxic methylmercury when discharged to lakes and other water bodies. Methylmercury is a neurotoxin that can affect IQ and cardiovascular health at sufficient concentrations.
Some companies have already begun the process of phasing out mercury products. Furniture retailer Ikea announced in 2015 that it would sell only LED lightbulbs that do not contain mercury, unlike traditional fluorescent light bulbs.
“Mercury-added products represent one-third of total mercury demand and consumption,” Bender told Bloomberg BNA. “So, by phasing out mercury-added products by 2020, this rather rapidly reduces global mercury demand.”
Mercury is added to a variety of products, including batteries, watches, cameras, clocks, dental amalgam, automobile headlights, neon signs, laboratory chemicals, preservatives, fixatives, buffers, dyes, barometers, and thermostats.
Abbott Laboratories, Dell Inc., Energizer Battery Manufacturing Inc., and Ford Motor Co. are among the manufacturers with products that can contain mercury, according to the Interstate Mercury Education & Reduction Clearinghouse..
In addition, mercury cell chlor alkali factories make chlorine and caustic soda. Increasingly, chlorine producers are moving away from mercury cell to membrane technology, which has much less impact on the environment, according to Euro Chlor, an association of producers.
The Minamata Convention prohibits new primary mining of mercury, and bans mined mercury traded for certain uses—such as for artisanal and small-scale gold mining—the largest emissions source worldwide, Bender told Bloomberg BNA via email.
Members of the convention are obliged to promote mercury-free gold processing methods and end the practice of burning the mercury-gold amalgam in residential areas.
The treaty also obligates countries to promote heath care services for people who are exposed to mercury and protect vulnerable populations, including children and women of child-bearing age.
The convention seeks to reduce the transboundary movement of mercury and promote more national mercury export bans such as those adopted by the U.S. and the EU.
Minamata Convention participants will gather for their first conference of the parties in Geneva from Sept. 24–29 to mark the convention’s entry into force and discuss compliance.
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