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New mercury pollution threats: a global health caution

(Abridged)

The Minamata Convention—a global agreement to tackle mercury—will enter into force on Aug 16, 2017, as the required 50th of the 128 signatory countries recently ratified the treaty, marking a long-awaited moment for the advancement of public health. However, while this achievement is celebrated, questions about whether governments are prepared to tackle complex issues surrounding implementation of the Convention remain rife. The Trump Administration has been actively working to revoke a host of environmental and health regulations, including restrictions on mercury discharges from coal-fired power plants, despite legal challenges by civil society groups. Meanwhile, in some southern regions of the globe, new mercury mining is intensifying, further undermining this treaty’s aims. Although some policy progress has been made for controlling mercury over the past decade, the emerging politics of deregulation and non-regulation pose serious threats to public health.

Years of intergovernmental negotiation went into the Minamata Convention, which aims to curb global mercury trade, use, and pollution, responding to abundant evidence on health effects of mercury. The convention includes restrictions on mercury mining to supply mercury for amalgamation in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, a leading source of mercury pollution. However, new mercury mining activities in Asia and Latin America have led to inexpensive mercury supplies and increased mercury use in gold extraction. In Mexico, so-called informal mercury mining increased by ten times between 2014 and 2016. In mining areas across Indonesia, cheap mercury has led to severe exposures, reportedly causing birth defects and other detrimental health effects, with mercury in water and sediment in artisanal and small-scale gold mining sites stated to be 600–3000 times the WHO standard.5 Small-scale miners associations worldwide have argued that unless their right to a livelihood is legally recognised and supported, efforts to curb mercury use will fail, as socioeconomic drivers of mercury use have been under-addressed to date. Advocacies of marginalised groups in small-scale mining communities often receive little attention in policy formulation and implementation agendas—a problem plaguing the Minamata Convention Nation Action Plans in many countries.

What needs to be done to achieve the health benefits that the Minamata Convention was designed to accomplish? Diverse economic inequities and power dynamics fuel mercury exposure; diverse modes of resistance are thus needed. The Trump Administration must be stopped from revoking mercury regulations. The public health community also should pressure governments everywhere to heed marginalised voices, firmly speak out against underlying sociopolitical processes that fuel mercury threats, and build solidarities with affected groups.

Source: [The Lancet]