United Nations Urges Mercury Emissions-Reduction Binding Treaty

The United Nations is calling for a binding global treaty to curb man-made mercury emissions as coal-fired power plants and small-scale gold mining threaten to boost pollutant levels in Asia, Africa and South America.

Envoys from about 100 countries will meet in Geneva on Jan. 18-23 for the final round of talks on a pact pledging to reduce emissions of the toxin and provide funds to help poorer countries adapt, said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme known as UNEP.

Failing to reach an agreement would make it difficult “to turn around a trend that we’ve observed for 200 years,” Steiner said today in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. “We believe we can achieve dramatic progress in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Asia is the world’s biggest emitter of mercury emissions, accounting for about half of the total, according to a UNEP study called Global Mercury Assessment 2013 that was released today. Small-scale, artisan miners who use mercury to extract gold from soil and rocks are responsible for releasing 35 percent of the emissions worldwide. Burning fossil fuels to generate power and heating causes 24 percent, the study showed.

Global mercury emissions have remained stable for two decades at an estimated 2,000 metric tons a year, according to UNEP. Lower output from Western nations after the U.S. and European Union tightened rules on toxins and accelerated a move toward cleaner technologies has countered rising emissions from developing countries, Steiner said. Kyrgyzstan is the last country in the world that allows mercury exports, he said.

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

Human-driven activities have contributed to a doubling of mercury pollution in the top 100 meters (328 feet) of the world’s seas the past century, according to UNEP.

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