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Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and a pollutant that knows no borders. Mercury pollution from halfway across the globe can end up in your local lake or the fish at your grocery store, where it poses a serious health hazard, especially for children and pregnant women.

Mercury moves around the world in three key ways. First, it is actively traded as a global commodity, often for uses like artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) in the developing world, where substantial mercury releases into the environment are routine. Second, airborne mercury, from burning coal for instance, can travel great distances before being deposited in waterways. Mercury released in Asia, for example, can circle the globe and enter American lakes and rivers. Third, once mercury enters a waterway, the natural bacteria can absorb it and convert it to a more toxic form: methyl mercury. Methyl mercury then enters the food chain through fish -- and the fish we eat comes from all over the world. Stopping mercury pollution in the United States isn't enough to protect ourselves and future generations. Mercury pollution is a global problem that needs a global solution.

Mercury Poses Serious Health Hazards

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every year tens of thousands of American newborns are at risk of impaired motor skills and learning abilities as a result of their mothers' prenatal fish consumption. Emerging research also links mercury exposure to cardiovascular disease in adult men. Beyond these effects, scientists continue to raise flags about additional health threats posed by mercury exposure.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury

In 2009, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) began a negotiating process that resulted in the Minamata Convention on Mercury. After four years of negotiations, the Minamata Convention on Mercury was adopted and opened for signature at a Diplomatic Conference (Conference of Plenipotentiaries), held in Kumamoto, Japan on October 10 and 11, 2013.

On the Minamata Convention website, you can track the governments that have signed and/or ratified the Convention. The Convention will enter into force after 50 governments have ratified it.

Key Convention Obligations

Supply and trade controls:

  • New mercury mines prohibited
  • Existing mines to be phased out within 15 years
  • Mercury from closing chlor-alkali plants cannot be sold or reused except within the chlor-alkali sector itself
  • Importing country must consent to mercury trade

Product phase-outs:

  • Batteries (except for two types of button cells often used in watches and hearing aids)
  • Most switches and relays
  • Skin-lightening soaps and creams
  • Pesticides and biocides (including biocides in paints, but not vaccines), and topical antiseptics
  • Measuring devices (barometers, hygrometers, manometers, thermometers, and blood pressure cuffs)
  • Mercury content of most fluorescent lamps must be below specified levels

Process reductions:

  • Mercury use in chlor-alkali production phased out
  • Mercury use in the manufacture of PVC and polyurethane significantly reduced
  • The use of mercury in artisanal and small scale mining reduced, and, where feasible, eliminated

Air emission controls required for new plants within five years and within 10 years for existing plants in the following source categories:

  • Coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers
  • Lead, zinc, copper, and industrial gold roasting and smelting processes
  • Cement plants
  • Waste incinerators

last revised 12/11/2014

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