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The United Nations Addresses Increasing Mercury Levels

by Brenda Evans, published

A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study finding increasing mercury levels in Africa, Asia, and South America will be discussed in Geneva this week.

According to the UN statement, the increase is mainly caused by the use of mercury to separate metal from ore in small-scale gold mining and by burning coal for electricity.

A UNEP press release states, "mercury emissions from artisanal gold mining are significantly greater than 2008 reports" and has doubled since 2005.

Rising gold prices are luring more individuals to profitable small-mining activities. This has especially affected developing nations with Asia leading as the largest regional emitter, which accounts for just under half of all global release.

Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director, is eager to see progress be made at the convention this week.

“Mercury, which exists in various forms, remains a major global, regional and national challenge in terms of threats to human health and the environment,” Steiner said in the release.

The UNEP study is the first to assess the release of mercury into rivers and lakes on a global level. The report states that "an estimated 260 tons of mercury (previously held in soils) are now being released into rivers and lakes".

The studies will be formally presented at the International Negotiating Committee on Mercury in Geneva this week. The six-day session is expected to culminate in the adoption of an agreement that aims to reduce mercury emissions into the air, water, and land.

According to UNEP, the convention will also address supply and trade of mercury, storage, managing contaminated sites, and financial and technical support for the implementation of a new convention.

Fernando Lugris, chair of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, will head the talks.

"While taking into account the impacts on national development, we must move to set national goals and reduction targets," Lugris said in the UNEP release. "Other efforts should work towards the formalization of the sector, which is largely unregulated. As well as reducing health risks from mercury, this could give workers greater rights under labor laws."

IPEN, a global network of public interest organizations working to eliminate persistent organic pollutants, states that 43 to 100 percent of fish samples from eight countries exceeded safe consumption of one fish meal (6 ounces) per month and mercury concentrations in fish from sites in Japan and Uruguay were so high that no consumption is recommended.

Mercury exposure effects vary with the form of mercury, duration, and amount of exposure. Common health effects include impaired neurological development, kidney damage, tremors, and visual impairment.

"Mercury has been known as a toxin and a hazard for centuries-but today we have many of the alternative technologies and processes needed to reduce the risks for tens of millions of people, including pregnant mothers and their babies," Steiner said. "A good outcome can also assist in a more sustainable future for generations to come."

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