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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Mercury rising – from beyond the cradle and the grave

Ibrahim Thiaw

11 Mar 2016

It is almost exactly 60 years since two sisters – aged just five and two – became the first of almost 20,000 people from an apparently idyllic stretch of the Japanese coastline to be officially diagnosed with a painful, irreversible and stigmatizing illness.

It took decades for the world to understand the science of mercury poisoning and its implications for the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe and the economies and ecosystems on which we depend. Today, we know that the consequences of the present mercury contamination will be felt by the generations that will follow our children and theirs.

Despite this knowledge, small children and many adults around the world continue to suffer. From the Philippines to Indonesia, from Peru to Ecuador and from Ghana to Zimbabwe, small scale and artisanal gold miners account for over a third of mercury emissions, handling and inhaling it all day, every day.

As far afield as Europe, Australia, China and the US, activities as common as construction, cremation or coal burning release mercury into communities oblivious to either its presence or its potency.

But whether the exposure is through lack of choice or lack of awareness, the damage is the same.

Unfortunately, six decades from Minamata, our better knowledge still has dangerous gaps. Estimates put manmade mercury emissions at around 2,000 tonnes, but with a margin of error of more than double that amount – ranging anywhere from 1,000 – 4,000 tonnes. With basic activities like making concrete and burning coal accounting for a third of mercury emissions, it is a significant gap to worry about.

With such a geographical and generational reach of mercury poisoning, addressing this problem must be part of a systematic lifecycle approach for both developed and developing countries.

That approach has to include a concerted public-private effort to control, phase out and ban the use or trade of mercury and its compounds; to ensure sound waste management and treatment of contaminated sites; and to share the experience and technology to make all of this possible.

Pollutants kill nine million people a year and, as with mercury, many of them spread, magnify and damage throughout their long lives.

That creeping shadow has implications for health, poverty, production, consumption, security and economy growth that explain why the environment, chemicals, pollution and waste are integral to virtually all 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and why these issues cannot be tackled in isolation by any single country, region or stakeholder.

For chemicals, the scale of the tough choices and the options to address them are reflected in the work of more than 100 partners to the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership and the scope and ambition of the Minamata Convention.

Japan is the latest welcome addition to the list of 23 countries that have already ratified the Convention, while many others are working hard to follow suit. But we need to build on this momentum if we are to ensure that the Convention can enter into force this year, letting us refocus our energy on its implementation.

The 2030 Agenda will stand or fall on our ability to achieve this as part of wider, multilateral chemical and waste management efforts like The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

Ultimately, these are not about the paper they are written on. They are there to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society. After all – did you ever hear of a wealthy person volunteering to work down a mine, drink contaminated water or risk the health and security of their child?

It is the health and wellbeing of the planet’s inhabitants that will be the guiding light of this week’s mercury negotiations and of this May’s UN Environment Assembly, where the world’s environment ministers will gather to design a healthy planet for its people.

President Obama said it was a “good day” when the United States announced mercury emissions standards in 2013, building on 20 years of effort across the political spectrum and just three weeks after becoming the first country to ratify the Minamata Convention.

Today, the world desperately needs another “good day” to get mercury under control and the week ahead provides that opportunity to delegates gathered at the Dead Sea shores.

By taking the final step to implement the mercury convention, they can deliver meaningful impact on the ground and solve a lethal, often invisible, issue that affects people from before they are born until long after they are gone. Think about this: mercury is rising from beyond the cradle and the grave. How long can we keep turning our back?

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