Germany, China Among Signatories to UN Treaty to Cut Mercury

Germany, China and Japan are among at least 110 nations that signed a United Nations treaty to curb emissions of man-made mercury.

The Minamata Convention adopted at a conference in Japan would outlaw new mercury mines and reduce industrial use of the metal, the German Environment Ministry said today in an e-mailed statement. The treaty will enter into force if at least 50 signatories ratify the agreement, the ministry said.

“The Minamata Convention will protect people and improve standards of living for millions around the world, especially the most vulnerable,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an address read to the conference according to a UN statement e-mailed today.

High mercury levels damage the nervous system and pose a particular danger to pregnant women, fetuses and children. Risks include memory loss, learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. People are typically exposed to mercury by eating contaminated fish. Once released, mercury can travel long distances through air and water and seep into soil.

Asia is the world’s biggest emitter of mercury, accounting for about half of the total, according to a UN Environment Program study released in January. Small-scale miners who use mercury to extract gold from soil and rocks are responsible for about 35 percent of the emissions worldwide. Burning fossil fuels to generate power and heating causes 24 percent, the study said.

Governments agreed to ban by 2020 several mercury-containing products including thermometers, batteries, some compact fluorescent lamps and soaps and cosmetics, the UN said in the statement. Other signatories to the treaty include the European Union, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, the German ministry said.

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