Mercury treaty adopted in Geneva by 140 countries

Updated 20 January 2013

Mercury treaty adopted in Geneva by 140 countries

GENEVA: Delegations from some 140 countries have agreed to adopt a ground-breaking treaty limiting the use of health-hazardous mercury, the Swiss foreign ministry and the said on Saturday.
The world’s first legally binding treaty on mercury, reached after a week of thorny talks, will aim to reduce global emission levels of the toxic heavy metal also known as quicksilver, which poses risks to human health and the environment.
Switzerland, which along with Norway initiated the process a decade ago, hailed the consensus on the issue.
“The new treaty aims to reduce the production and the use of mercury, especially in the production of products and in industrial processes,” the Swiss foreign ministry said in a statement.
Countries will be asked to sign the treaty next October in Minamata, Japan, in honor of the town’s inhabitants who for decades have suffered the consequences of serious mercury contamination, the statement said.
“The adoption of the mercury treaty shows the vitality of international environmental politics and the will of states to together find solutions to world problems,” head of the Swiss delegation to the talks, Franz Perrez, said in the statement.
Mercury is found in products ranging from electrical switches to thermometers to light-bulbs, to amalgam dental fillings and even facial creams, and large amounts of the heavy metal are released from small-scale gold mining, coal-burning power plants, metal smelters and cement production.
Serious mercury poisoning affects the body’s immune system and can lead to problems including psychological disorders, loss of teeth and problems with the digestive, cardiovascular and respiratory tracts.
It also affects development of the brain and nervous system and poses the greatest risk to foetuses and infants.
Ahead of the Geneva conference, the UN’s environmental program provided the first global assessment of releases of mercury into rivers and lakes.
“In the past 100 years, man-made emissions have caused the amount of mercury in the top 100 meters of the world’s oceans to double. Concentrations in deeper waters have increased by up to 25%,” the agency said, adding that much human exposure to mercury is through the consumption of contaminated fish.
UNEP also highlighted rising levels of mercury in the Arctic, where 200 tons of the substance are deposited every year.
The UN agency’s study also found that developing countries were especially vulnerable to direct mercury contamination owing mainly to the widespread use of the element in small-scale gold mining and to the burning of coal for electricity generation.
Such exposure “poses a direct threat to the health of some 10-15 million people who are directly involved in small scale gold mining, mainly in Africa, Asia and South America,” UNEP said.

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Press statement of the UNEP on the Treaty:

Mercury-containing products whose production, export and import will be banned by 2020, include:
• Batteries, except for ‘button cell’ batteries used in implantable medical devices
• Switches and relays
• Certain types of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs)
• Mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps
• Soaps and cosmetics

Certain kinds of non-electronic medical devices such as thermometers and blood pressure devices are also included for phase-out by 2020.
Governments approved exceptions for some large measuring devices where currently there are no mercury-free alternatives.
• Vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative have been excluded from the treaty as have products used in religious or traditional activities
• Delegates agreed to a phase-down of the use of dental fillings using mercury amalgam.

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining
The booming price of gold in recent years has triggered a significant growth in small-scale mining where mercury is used to separate gold from the ore-bearing rock.
Emissions and releases from such operations and from coal-fired power stations represent the biggest source of mercury pollution world-wide.
Workers and their families involved in small-scale gold mining are exposed to mercury pollution in several ways including through inhalation during the smelting.
Mercury is also being released into river systems from these small-scale operations where it can contaminate fish, the food chain and people downstream.
• Governments agreed that the treaty will require countries to draw up strategies to reduce the amount of mercury used by small-scale miners
• Nations with artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations will draw up national plans within three years of the treaty entering into force to reduce and if possible eliminate the use of mercury in such operations
• Public awareness campaigns and support for mercury-free alternatives will also be part of the plans

From power stations to cement factories
The new treaty will control mercury emissions and releases from various large industrial facilities ranging from coal-fired power stations and industrial boilers to certain kinds of smelters handling for example zinc and gold.
Waste incineration and cement clinker facilities are also on the list.
Nations agreed to install the Best Available Technologies on new power plants and facilities with plans to be drawn up to bring emissions down from existing ones.
The negotiations were initially looking to set thresholds on the size of plants or level of emissions to be controlled. But it was decided this week to defer this until the first meeting of the treaty after it comes into force.


Belarus authorities free detainees amid protesters’ pressure

Updated 9 min 49 sec ago

Belarus authorities free detainees amid protesters’ pressure

  • Around midnight, scores of detainees were seen walking out of one of Minsk’s jails
  • The releases came hours after Belarus’ top law enforcement official apologized on state television for the indiscriminate use of force by police

MINSK, Belarus: Belarusian authorities have released dozens of people detained amid demonstrations contesting the results of the presidential election, in an attempt to assuage public anger against a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests.
Around midnight, scores of detainees were seen walking out of one of Minsk’s jails. In the early morning, volunteers also saw at least 119 detainees being released in the сity of Zhodino just northeast of the Belarusian capital. Ambulances arrived to carry those who apparently were unable to walk on their own.
The releases came hours after Belarus’ top law enforcement official apologized on state television for the indiscriminate use of force by police. “I take responsibility for what they say was violence against those people, who happened to be nearby and failed to back off quickly enough,” Interior Minister Yuri Karayev said late Thursday.
The apologies and the release of detainees follow five days of massive protests, in which crowds of demonstrators swarmed the streets to contest the vote results and demand an end to the 26-year rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. On Thursday, thousands of workers rallied outside industrial plants to denounce the police crackdown and push for a recount of Sunday’s vote.
Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured in the clampdown on demonstrators protesting the official results that said Lukashenko won 80% of the vote and his top opposition challenger only 10%. Police have broken up protests with stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and severe beatings.
On Thursday, hundreds of women formed long “lines of solidarity” in several areas of the capital, Minsk. Many were dressed in white and carried flowers and portraits of detained loved ones.
The human chains grew throughout the day, filling Minsk’s main central squares and avenues and spreading to numerous other cities as motorists honked in support. In Minsk and several other cities, thousands of factory workers also rallied against the police violence, raising the prospect of strikes in a new challenge to the government. Protesters were shouting “Go away!” to demand Lukashenko’s resignation.
Amid growing public dismay, dozens of military and police veterans posted videos in which they dumped their uniforms and insignia in the trash. Several popular anchors at Belarus’ state TV stations have quit.
The demonstrations have spread even though the protest lacks leaders. The top opposition challenger in the vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, suddenly emerged Tuesday in neighboring Lithuania and called on her supporters to stop protests in a video that her associates said was recorded under pressure from law enforcement officials before she left. The 37-year-old former teacher had joined the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger, who has been jailed since May.
The massive protests against election results and police brutality have been an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and earned the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator” for his relentless crackdown on dissent. The scope and ferocity of the police clampdown were remarkable even for Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule, triggering widespread anger.
After dismissing protesters as mostly ex-convicts and unemployed, the authoritarian leader kept silent Thursday as the demonstrations spread quickly. Some reports said he was preparing an address to the nation.
A protester died Monday in Minsk when, according to the Interior Ministry, an explosive device he tried to throw at police blew up in his hand. Media reports challenged the ministry’s claim, alleging that he was killed by police. The place where he died quickly turned into a pilgrimage site, with hundreds of people, including European ambassadors, laying flowers there.
The authorities said that a detainee died in the southeastern city of Gomel, but the circumstances of his death weren’t immediately clear.
The brutal suppression of protests drew harsh criticism in the West.
European Union foreign ministers are set to meet Friday to discuss a response, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the 27-nation bloc would “increase the pressure” on Belarus.