Next week, diplomats from around the world will gather in Geneva to negotiate a treaty on global emissions of mercury – a lethal neurotoxin that includes, among an inventory of grim effects, brain damage and the loss of IQ points in unborn children, injuries to kidneys and heart, and results in tens of billions of dollars in healthcare costs every year in the US alone. The Geneva conference is the final of five meetings, with a treaty expected soon thereafter.
While global mercury emissions are on the rise, negotiators, unfortunately, appear to be leaning towards a treaty with soft measures unlikely to prevent continued catastrophic impacts from this deadly and debilitating poison. Ironically, signatories propose to ink their treaty in Minamata, Japan, a town that famously suffered widespread mercury poisoning.
Health experts first described mercury poisoning, then called “Minamata disease”, in Minamata city, in Japan, in 1956. Mercury discharges from the Chisso chemical plant contaminated finfish and shellfish, devastating the community’s human and animal population for decades. Many of the region’s citizens died and tens of thousands of people suffered mercury-related illnesses.
A former Japanese prime minister proposed naming the treaty the “Minamata Convention” to inspire delegates to reach an agreement that would prevent future mercury poisoning. Sadly, the treaty does not require identification or remediation of contaminated sites, does not require polluters to pay for health damages or environmental clean-up, or provide for protection from similar disasters occurring anywhere in the world. In fact, the treaty is not expected to reduce global levels of mercury in fish and seafood at all.
Poisonous mercury raining down from coal-fired power plants has contaminated fish in every US state. Now, a new report from the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) in Maine and IPEN, a network of 700 public interest organizations in 116 countries, shows the devastating global impacts of mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants and other mercury sources. The IPEN-BRI Global Hotspots report finds that coal-fired power plants, artisanal small-scale gold mining, chlor-alkali plants, and other industrial sources contaminate humans and fish around the world with mercury levels that exceed health advisory levels.
Mercury levels in fish from sites in Japan and Uruguay were so high that no consumption is recommended, according to US EPA guidelines, and 95% of the human hair samples taken from individuals tested in Tokyo, Japan exceeded the US EPA reference dose. The report demonstrates the need for a treaty that effectively addresses mercury releases.