Quantcast

Mercury Rising, Political Will Falling

Climate

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Marc Yaggi

[Editor's note: Waterkeeper Alliance's International Director Sharon Khan is attending the mercury treaty negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, and is providing live updates from the conference. For information regarding the mercury treaty negotiations, read the report Global Mercury Hotspots, and the first and second blog posts by Khan.]

Next week, diplomats from around the world will gather in Geneva to negotiate a treaty on global emissions of mercury—a lethal neurotoxin that includes, among an inventory of grim effects, brain damage and the loss of IQ points in unborn children, injuries to kidneys and heart, and results in tens of billions of dollars in healthcare costs every year in the U.S. alone. The Geneva conference is the final of five meetings, with a treaty expected soon thereafter.

While global mercury emissions are on the rise, negotiators, unfortunately, appear to be leaning towards a treaty with soft measures unlikely to prevent continued catastrophic impacts from this deadly and debilitating poison. Ironically, signatories propose to ink their treaty in Minamata, Japan, a town that famously suffered widespread mercury poisoning.

Health experts first described mercury poisoning, then called "Minamata disease," in Minamata city, in Japan, in 1956. Mercury discharges from the Chisso chemical plant contaminated finfish and shellfish, devastating the community's human and animal population for decades. Many of the region's citizens died and tens of thousands of people suffered mercury-related illnesses.

Minamata sufferer Suemi Uemura, with benumbed legs stretched out, in her home in Izumi, Japan. Minamata disease is caused by industrial mercury pollution. Photograph: Katsumi Kasahara/AP

A former Japanese prime minister proposed naming the treaty the "Minamata Convention" to inspire delegates to reach an agreement that would prevent future mercury poisoning. Sadly, the treaty does not require identification or remediation of contaminated sites, does not require polluters to pay for health damages or environmental clean-up, or provide for protection from similar disasters occurring anywhere in the world. In fact, the treaty is not expected to reduce global levels of mercury in fish and seafood at all.

Poisonous mercury raining down from coal-fired power plants has contaminated fish in every U.S. state. Now, a new report from the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) in Maine and IPEN, a network of 700 public interest organizations in 116 countries, shows the devastating global impacts of mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants and other mercury sources. The IPEN-BRI Global Hotspots report finds that coal-fired power plants, artisanal small-scale gold mining, chlor-alkali plants, and other industrial sources contaminate humans and fish around the world with mercury levels that exceed health advisory levels.

Mercury levels in fish from sites in Japan and Uruguay were so high that no consumption is recommended, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines, and 95 percent of the human hair samples taken from individuals tested in Tokyo, Japan exceeded the U.S. EPA reference dose. The report demonstrates the need for a treaty that effectively addresses mercury releases.

The U.S. is only now starting to see progress in reducing mercury emissions. In America, citizen action forced EPA to adopt the first ever mercury and air toxics rule in 2012. This rule will prevent 90 percent of the mercury in coal burned at power plants from being emitted into the air. Experts estimate the rule will, among other things, prevent annually up to 6,000 heart attacks, 130,000 asthma attacks, 3,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 4,000-11,000 premature deaths.

Moreover, experts predict the rule will save $40-70bn in healthcare costs annually. Imagine the benefits if these reductions were implemented globally.

Coal barons and mining magnates are profiting from poisoning the rest of us. As coal consumption dwindles in the U.S., these companies are exporting their deadly product to the rest of world. A recent report from World Resources Institute estimates that almost 1,200 additional coal-fired plants are planned for development around the world.

But the mercury treaty is likely to call simply for reductions on a per facility basis, rather than an overall reduction in mercury emissions to air and water. As a result, the treaty could legitimize increased mercury pollution as the number of coal-fired power plants increases globally. Moreover, there is no agreement that the treaty should even require existing facilities to apply the best available techniques to reduce mercury releases.

We need a mercury treaty that actually reduces global mercury pollution. A treaty that fails to include mandatory mercury reductions overall will dishonor the victims of Minamata disease and accelerate mercury poisoning across the globe.

Those of us who care about public health and clean water, must stand strong and shame the spineless diplomats in Geneva into crafting a treaty that truly prevents the devastating environmental and public health impacts of mercury.

--------

This column first appeared at Guardian.co.uk.

 

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Tim P. Whitby / 21st Century Fox / Getty Images

The beauty products we put on our skin can have important consequences for our health. Just this March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that some Claire's cosmetics had tested positive for asbestos. But the FDA could only issue a warning, not a recall, because current law does not empower the agency to do so.

Michelle Pfeiffer wants to change that.

The actress and Environmental Working Group (EWG) board member was spotted on Capitol Hill Thursday lobbying lawmakers on behalf of a bill that would increase oversight of the cosmetics industry, The Washington Post reported.

Read More Show Less
A protest march against the Line 3 pipeline in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 18, 2018. Fibonacci Blue / CC BY 2.0

By Collin Rees

We know that people power can stop dangerous fossil fuel projects like the proposed Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline in Minnesota, because we've proved it over and over again — and recently we've had two more big wins.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Scientists released a study showing that a million species are at risk for extinction, but it was largely ignored by the corporate news media. Danny Perez Photography / Flickr / CC

By Julia Conley

Scientists at the United Nations' intergovernmental body focusing on biodiversity sounded alarms earlier this month with its report on the looming potential extinction of one million species — but few heard their calls, according to a German newspaper report.

Read More Show Less
DoneGood

By Cullen Schwarz

Ethical shopping is a somewhat new phenomenon. We're far more familiar with the "tried and tested" methods of doing good, like donating our money or time.

Read More Show Less
Pixabay

Summer is fast approaching, which means it's time to stock up on sunscreen to ward off the harmful effects of sun exposure. Not all sunscreens are created equally, however.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

The climate crisis is a major concern for American voters with nearly 40 percent reporting the issue will help determine how they cast their ballots in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to a report compiled by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Of more than 1,000 registered voters surveyed on global warming, climate and energy policies, as well as personal and collective action, 38 percent said that a candidate's position on climate change is "very important" when it comes to determining who will win their vote. Overall, democratic candidates are under more pressure to provide green solutions as part of their campaign promises with 64 percent of Democrat voters saying they prioritize the issue compared with just 34 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Republicans.

Read More Show Less
Flooding in Winfield, Missouri this month. Jonathan Rehg / Getty Images

President Donald Trump has agreed to sign a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill that will help Americans still recovering from the flooding, hurricanes and wildfires that have devastated parts of the country in the past two years. Senate Republicans said they struck a deal with the president to approve the measure, despite the fact that it did not include the funding he wanted for the U.S.-Mexican border, CNN reported.

"The U.S. Senate has just approved a 19 Billion Dollar Disaster Relief Bill, with my total approval. Great!" the president tweeted Thursday.

Read More Show Less
Reed Hoffmann / Getty Images

Violent tornadoes tore through Missouri Wednesday night, killing three and causing "extensive damage" to the state's capital of Jefferson City, The New York Times reported.

"There was a lot of devastation throughout the state," Governor Mike Parson said at a Thursday morning press conference, as NPR reported. "We were very fortunate last night that we didn't have more injuries than what we had, and we didn't have more fatalities across the state. But three is too many."

Read More Show Less