UNEP and Brazil together to fight Mercury risks

Warning - Contaminated fishMercury can seriously harm human health, and is a particular threat to the development of fetuses and young children. It affects humans in several ways. As vapor, it is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream when inhaled. It damages the central nervous system, thyroid, kidneys, lungs, immune system, eyes, gums and skin. A real danger.

Three days ago Brazil’s Ministry of Environment (MoE) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched a new research project to help manage environmental health risks from mercury.

The project, Development of Minamata Convention on Mercury – Initial Assessment in Brazil, aims to facilitate the ratification and early implementation of the Minamata Convention by providing key stakeholders in Brazil with the scientific and technical knowledge to protect human health and the environment from emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.

The Minamata Convention was adopted on 10 October 2013 in the Japanese city of Kumamoto and named after the place where thousands of people were poisoned by mercury in the mid-20th century. The convention, which has 128 signatures and 12 ratifications, provides for controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted. The treaty also addresses the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury.

Mercury’s impacts on the human nervous system have been well known since Greek and Roman times. Its potential impacts include impaired thyroid and liver function, irritability, tremors, disturbances to vision, memory loss and cardiovascular problems. Mercury is concentrated as it rises up the food chain, reaching its highest level in predator fish such as swordfish and shark that may be consumed by humans. There can also be serious impacts on ecosystems, including reproductive effects on birds and predatory mammals. Air emissions of mercury are highly mobile globally, while aquatic releases of mercury are more localized.

Mercury in water becomes more biologically dangerous and eventually some mercury evaporates into the atmosphere. Once deposited in soils and sediments, the mercury changes its chemical form, largely through metabolism by bacteria or other microbes, and becomes methyl mercury, the most dangerous form for human health and the environment. Methyl mercury normally accounts for at least 90 per cent of the mercury in fish.

“The Minamata Convention paves the way for greater international cooperation on mercury pollution and global efforts to remove a serious health and environmental threat from the lives of people across the globe,” said Achim Steiner, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director.

“Early ratification and implementation of the Convention are crucial to encourage swift action in nations such as Brazil, which sees around 50 tonnes of mercury emitted to the atmosphere each year – not to mention further exposure in areas such as artisanal small-scale gold mining,” he added. “This joint project will better quantify the emissions to water and land, and allow targeted action to phase out mercury use in line with the convention.”

According to the Brazilian Chemical Industry Association (ABIQUIM), Brazil is the seventh largest global economy in terms of the chemical sector. Although Brazil has several environmental studies that refer to atmospheric, aquatic, terrestrial and biotic media, most of the data refers to the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining only. Furthermore, Brazil has limited experience in collecting and separately storing mercury and mercury waste, such as that found in lightbulbs. Brazil consumes annually 300 million bulbs, of which only 16 million are recycled and disposed correctly. The assessments conducted in the project will take into account how the most vulnerable and excluded populations are particularly affected by mercury releases and will recommend public policies and legislation to protect them.

“The country has indicated that availability of data is a major challenge to design adequate strategies for mercury control and reduction, therefore UNEP’s extensive expertise on mercury assessments will facilitate the process to identify the national challenges, needs and opportunities in this sector,” said Denise Hamu, UNEP’s representative in Brazil.

The project is scheduled to be completed in two years at a total cost of US$2.5 million, of which US$820,000 is provided by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). ONE

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