Mercury is far more pervasive than most people realise, and we have no idea how many people are at risk. It can be found in everything from mascara and dental amalgam to thermometers and skin whitening creams – and that’s before it reaches the food chain.
There is no safe level of exposure, and everyone is at risk when mercury is released without safeguards. Children and newborn and unborn babies are most vulnerable, along with populations who eat contaminated fish. Studies have shown that children as far afield as Brazil, Canada, China, Columbia and Greenland all suffer cognitive impairment from eating fish containing mercury.
Then there are those who use mercury at work, and people who live near a source of mercury pollution, or in colder climates where the dangerous heavy metal tends to accumulate.
While we have historically been quick to use mercury, too few countries are equipped to deal with the fallout from that use. And far too few of the opportunities that could be created to bring it under control are being grasped.
That’s why the first conference of the parties to the Minamata convention, taking place this week, is so important. The convention has now been ratified by 83 countries – four this week alone – and the list is growing. It matters because with every new party there is more opportunity for the convention to ensure mercury does no more harm.
It is a chance for the world to work towards the safe handling, storage, treatment and disposal of mercury products and waste. It is the first major step towards ending mercury production and use in mining and industry. And it will make it easier to hold people to account when they break laws prohibiting mercury production and illegal disposal and dumping.
But there is still a huge gap between the provisions of the Minamata convention and current practices. The need to scale up awareness of and action on mercury is huge. The plight of more than 14 million miners exposed to mercury through its use in small-scale gold mining in more than 70 countries should be enough to prompt us to drastically reduce its use. After all, there are a number of alternatives to using mercury today, and the list is growing.
But in many countries, the fundamental issue is waste management. Mercury is still used in too many basic household or commercial items such as fluorescent lamps, or electric switches that are regularly thrown away. Some countries have no formal waste management mechanisms. Some mix it with other municipal or industrial waste in landfills or open dumping sites. And others manage it as hazardous waste in general, but without the specific handling that is necessary for mercury waste.
The scale of the challenge cannot be underestimated. For example, 90% of electronic goods are illegally dumped, which and include lead compounds, cadmium, chromium and, of course, mercury. That’s up to 50m tonnes a year – and growing fast.
Mercury’s poisonous strands touch too many aspects of too many lives. Yet, with the sole exception of the US, every nation on Earth has ratified the UN convention on the rights of the child, which obliges states to take account of the health risks from contaminated food, water and pollution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts our right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
Nearly 150 national constitutions include environmental protection and more than 100 countries guarantee their citizens the right to a healthy environment.
It is our responsibility to make the Minamata convention a testimony to all who have already suffered, and a force for progress to minimise the risk for millions more.