Boost for mercury regulation in developing nations

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KUMAMOTO, Japan — The adoption Thursday of the Minamata Convention on Mercury is a big step toward worldwide mercury regulation, but some experts say it does not adequately address such issues as the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining operations often seen in developing nations.

To eliminate the damage caused by mercury, each nation needs to take effective measures.

When Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara struck a wooden gavel to declare the adoption of the convention, the representatives of each participating nation and territory filled the conference hall in Kumamoto with warm applause.

The convention aims to prevent harm to health and the environment by reducing mercury emissions worldwide through the regulation of such areas as the mining, import and export of mercury, as well as the use of mercury in manufacturing. To realize this aim, the convention promises to promote the transfer of relevant technology to developing nations.

Mercury is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature and predisposed to mix with gold and silver. It has been used from ancient times, notably in covering the massive Buddha statue with gold during the Nara period (710-784).

However, mercury, particularly organic mercury, is highly poisonous and can cause neurological illness including shaking in the limbs when introduced into a human body. Minamata disease was caused by mercury that was used as a catalytic agent in the production of acetaldehyde.

Although it has been 57 years since Minamata disease was officially recognized, mercury is still used mainly in developing nations, and there are still reports of damage to people’s health.

“I believe the amount of mercury emitted around the world will be reduced when the convention is ratified and becomes law in many nations,” said Kenji Nagamoto, 54, afflicted with Minamata disease when he was still in his mother’s womb. “I hope no one will suffer the same anguish we have.”

According to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), a total of 1,960 tons of mercury was emitted in 2010, and 37 percent of it was from small-scale gold mining sites. By region, nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America emitted most of the mercury.

To extract gold from gold ore, the ore is first mixed with mercury to form a mixed metal. When the mixed metal is heated, the mercury vaporizes, leaving only gold. The vaporized mercury pollutes the air and harms the human body when workers inhale it.

“The adoption of the convention will prompt domestic countermeasures,” said a representative from Indonesia, where there are many small-scale gold mining sites. However, certain steps must be taken to ensure the regulations actually work.

The convention requires ratifying nations to develop action plans that include the goal of reducing small-scale mining. However, this only applies to nations that deem themselves to have more than a little small-scale mining.

Several million people are believed to work in small-scale mining, mainly in developing nations, and there are illegal businesses trying to make a quick fortune.

The convention does not make it mandatory to stop them, judging that it would be too difficult for the ratifying nations to search every one of those businesses.

Therefore, developing nations need to voluntarily and aggressively work on creating domestic regulations. Japan promised to provide a total of $2 billion in aid over three years.

Experts have pointed out issues regarding compensation for health damage caused by mercury, because the convention only encourages, instead of obliges, governments to identify and protect potential victims.

When Minamata disease occurred in Japan, damage spread because the government was slow to take necessary measures. Compensation for the victims was also patchy--some were acknowledged as victims by the government, some got relief from two different political settlements and some were awarded money by judicial rulings.

Though Japan called for strict provisions within the convention itself, Canada insisted that rules concerning compensation should be created by each nation. This resulted in lax regulation.

Some experts believe Canada took this stance because its native people insist their health has been damaged by mercury and severe regulations in the convention could cause compensation issues.

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