U.S.-Preferred Voluntary Approach Will Not Protect Public Health, Environmentalists Say

NAIROBI (February 25, 2005) -- The agreement announced today by the United Nations Environmental Program on international steps to reduce global mercury pollution will not adequately protect public health or the environment, according to environmental and indigenous peoples organizations. The announcement was made at a UNEP meeting in Nairobi. (For UNEP's announcement, click here.)

The European Union called for countries to phase out and then eliminate mercury exports by 2011. Norway and Switzerland called for an even more stringent approach: an international treaty to phase-out primary mercury production and to stop mercury surpluses from re-entering the market, much like the way nations banned CFCs to protect the ozone layer. The UNEP Governing Council, however, opted for a voluntary partnership proposal backed by the United States. (For more on the split between the United States and Europe on mercury, click here.)

Environmental organizations attending the conference said the UNEP Governing Council's recommendations did not go far enough because of the United States' "obstructionist" role. (For environmental organizations' comments to UNEP, click here.)

"The United States hijacked the process despite the overwhelming evidence from the UN about the global mercury crisis and the need for immediate and long-term international action," said Michael Bender of Ban Mercury Working Group, an international NGO coalition. "All the United States proposed were voluntary partnerships to address mercury, which, based on past experience, do not produce meaningful results."

Representatives from environmental groups in developing countries also were concerned about the effectiveness of such partnerships. "Although there was a strong recognition by developing countries at the meeting of the seriousness of the issue of mercury and the disproportionate impacts it has on them, the international community still is not addressing the crisis in a meaningful and accountable manner," said Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link, an environmental group in India.

"The European Union played a strong role in highlighting the need for a legally binding instrument and other important policy measures," said Elena Lymberidi of the European Environmental Bureau. "We are disappointed that other countries did not allow the proposal to move forward."

Kevin Brigden of Greenpeace also said voluntary approaches fall short. "Strong coordinated international action, in combination with a legally binding measures, are essential to address mercury," he said. "We hope that governments will act upon this urgent need in the future."

The UNEP Governing Council, comprised of representatives from around the world, did recommend specific actions countries could take on their own to reduce their mercury use, trade and pollution, and called for more research on supply, demand and trade. Specifically, UNEP:

  • Recognized of the value of curbing mercury mining and keeping excess mercury out of commerce;

  • Agreed to analyze global mercury trade, supply and demand to better understand the extent and patterns of use;

  • Asked governments to consider banning or restricting the use of mercury in products, such as batteries, and processes, such as those used by chlorine manufacturers;

  • Asked governments to consider controlling mercury emissions using best available techniques;

  • Asked industrialized countries to provide developing countries access to financial resources to reduce mercury pollution; and

  • Agreed to assess the need for further action on mercury, including the possibility of a legally binding agreement, at the Governing Council session two years from now.

"Unfortunately, the agreements announced today are weak," said Llewellyn Leonard of groundWork, a South African environmental group. "They will not ensure that mercury will not be dumped on developing nations as happened when mercury waste was imported into South Africa by Thor Chemicals, resulting in contamination and numerous deaths."

How best to reduce worldwide mercury use is in dispute, but there is no argument that it poses a significant threat to human health. Like lead, it threatens the brain and nervous system. Mercury exposure can lead to neurological diseases and such developmental problems as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders and mental retardation. Elevated mercury levels in adults can adversely affect fertility, blood pressure regulation, and may contribute to heart-rate variability and heart disease. (For more information about mercury pollution in the United States, click here.)

Women and children are at most risk, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. One in six American women of childbearing age has mercury in her blood above the level that would pose a risk to a developing fetus, according to EPA scientists. Thus, some 630,000 newborns in the United States are threatened every year by neurological impairment from exposure in-utero. Infants and children also are endangered because their developing brains are extremely sensitive to mercury, which they can ingest from breast milk and contaminated fish.

NRDC sharply criticized the U.S. position on mercury pollution. "This administration has been pointing to pollution sources outside of our borders for years as the rationale for not aggressively curbing power plant pollution and other mercury sources within our own country," said Dr. Linda E. Greer, director of NRDC's Health Program. "The abdication of its responsibility to play a leadership role internationally breeds tremendous cynicism about its commitment to solving this global problem and protecting public health." (For a copy of Dr. Greer's statement to the plenary session of UNEP, contact Elizabeth Heyd at eheyd@nrdc.org.)