U.N. Reaches Landmark Agreement to Reduce Global Mercury Pollution
Obama Administration Reverses U.S. Position, Takes Leadership Role in Negotiations
WASHINGTON (February 20, 2009) – Representatives from more than 140 countries today committed to reduce global mercury pollution, which will help protect the world’s citizens from the dangerous neurotoxin. This agreement was propelled by the United States’ reversal in policy, which also influenced policy reversals of other countries, including China and India. The announcement is a historic step forward in the fight against mercury pollution, according to scientists and policy experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
“This is great news for reducing mercury pollution around the world, and shows a commitment from the Obama Administration to international environmental issues,” said Susan Egan Keane, policy analyst for NRDC. “The United States has taken a leadership role that will chart a new course on mercury protections around the world. We have set a strong example that is already influencing others to do the same.”
The committed countries will reduce risks to human health and the environment from mercury by coordinating global cuts in the use and release of mercury into our air, water and land. The United Nations Environment Program Governing Council, which is meeting this week in Nairobi, Kenya, will now develop a legally binding treaty to be enacted by 2013. The treaty will include actions to reduce global mercury pollution and human exposure to the chemical, by reducing intentional use of mercury in industrial processes and products and reducing emissions from coal plants and smelters. It will also address the problems posed by mercury waste sites.
“Today we have won a momentous human health victory that will reduce illness and save lives both here and abroad,” said Keane. “This globally coordinated plan will substantially reduce mercury contamination in fish, prevent the contamination of our water, and shield our children from a dangerous chemical.”
Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin and global pollutant that moves thousands of miles from its original source. Its travels through air and water, accumulating in large predatory fish, and poisons people mainly through the consumption of contaminated fish, including tuna. It is especially dangerous for pregnant women, babies and small children, as it can gravely impede brain development.
Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury air emissions worldwide – emitting 50 tons of mercury pollution every year in the U.S. alone. As the price of oil has risen, coal has become a more economically attractive source of energy in countries where it is abundant and inexpensive. Currently, coal-fired power plants supply 75 percent of China's energy; in the next eight years, China was expected to add more than 560 new coal plants – a pace of more than one new plant each week. Chemical manufacturing facilities in the European Union, India and China and small-scale gold mines in the developing world are also among the biggest mercury pollution sources.
NRDC has worked to enact mercury protections at the national and global levels for decades. NRDC representative Susan Egan Keane is currently in attendance at the U.N. Environment Program Governing Council meeting in Nairobi, where she is working with the Zero Mercury Working Group, an international coalition of more than 75 public-interest non-governmental organizations worldwide that has been pursuing a legally binding international agreement to reduce mercury pollution for more than five years. Last year, NRDC successfully advocated for a new U.S. ban on the export of mercury, working closely with members of Congress, including the bill’s sponsor, then-Senator Obama.