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.

Over 360 more detained in Belarus in protests against leader

Updated 21 min 22 sec ago

Over 360 more detained in Belarus in protests against leader

  • Lukashenko’s inauguration hadn’t been announced in advance and came as a surprise for many
  • Lukashenko on Thursday argued that the inauguration wasn’t prepared in secret and bristled at Western criticism

KYIV, Ukraine: Over 360 more people have been detained in Belarus during protests against the country’s authoritarian president, who was unexpectedly sworn in to his sixth term in office after an election the opposition says was rigged.
Thousands of Belarusians took to the streets of the capital of Minsk and other cities on Wednesday evening, protesting the unannounced inauguration of President Alexander Lukashenko that took place in the morning. Police fiercely dispersed the crowds; in Minsk, officers used truncheons and water cannons, leaving dozens injured.
The country’s Interior Ministry said Thursday that 364 people were detained the previous night, including 252 in Minsk. The vast majority of them remain in custody, awaiting a court hearing.
Despite the crackdown, rallies continued Thursday morning, with hundreds in Minsk forming human chains of solidarity in parts of the city and obstructing road traffic by driving slowly or stopping altogether, honking in protest.
Lukashenko’s inauguration hadn’t been announced in advance and came as a surprise for many after nearly seven weeks of mass protests against his disputed reelection. Opposition leaders dismissed the ceremony that had been prepared in secrecy as “a farce”, and many European officials refused to recognize Lukashenko as the country’s legitimate president.
Lukashenko on Thursday argued that the inauguration wasn’t prepared in secret and bristled at Western criticism.
“You know, about 2,000 people, together with the military, were invited to the inauguration. It is practically impossible to keep it secret,” he was quoted by the state news agency Belta as saying.
“You know, we didn’t ask anyone to recognize or not recognize our election, the legitimacy of the newly elected president ... the important thing is that it’s in accordance with the Constitution,” Lukashenko said.
Lukashenko, a 66-year-old former state farm director, has run Belarus, an ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million, with an iron fist for 26 years. Official results of the country’s Aug. 9 presidential election had given him 80 percent of the vote, with his strongest opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, getting 10 percent support. But both opposition members and some poll workers say the vote was rigged.
Tsikhanouskaya has not accepted the outcome of the election as valid, and neither have the thousands of her supporters who have been demanding Lukashenko’s resignation at daily rallies all over the country for nearly seven weeks in a row.
The United States and the European Union condemned the election as neither free nor fair and criticized the violent police crackdown on post-election protests in Belarus. The EU has been pondering sanctions against the Belarusian leadership, but failed to agree on imposing them this week.
Anti-Lukashenko protests have rocked the country daily since the election, with the largest rallies in Minsk attracting up to 200,000 people. In the first days of protests, police used tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Several protesters died, many were injured and nearly 7,000 were detained.
Amid international outrage over the violent suppression of the protests, Belarusian authorities switched to prosecuting top activists. Many members of the Coordination Council that was formed by the opposition to push for a transition of power have been arrested or forced to leave the country.
This week the crackdown on street demonstrators has intensified as well, with police detaining hundreds and injuring many.
The country’s Prosecutor General Andrei Shved on Thursday threatened protesters with “significant” fines and said authorities are seeking to adopt stricter punishments for parents “who are involving children in protest actions.”
Prosecutors in Minsk have already handed 140 warnings to families that took children to anti-government rallies.