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UNEP Press Release: Mercury Negotiations Move Forward Towards Global Treaty

November 7th, 2011

Nairobi, 3 November 2011 - Representatives from 120 governments gathered at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programmed (UNEP) in Nairobi for negotiations towards a global treaty on mercury.

The third of five sessions of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC3) will address the release of mercury into the environment from energy production and industrial processes and the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining, consumer goods and its presence in hazardous wastes, among other issues.

Mercury is listed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the top ten chemicals of public health concern. Human exposure to mercury can damage the nervous system and cause behavioural disorders. When released, mercury persists in the environment where it circulates between air, water, sediments and soil. Mercury has toxic effects on humans and wildlife and can enter the food chain through contaminated fish.

To mark the Nairobi negotiations, UNEP hosted a press briefing with senior members of the International Negotiating Committee, including Chairperson Fernando Lugris (Uruguay) and mercury experts from UNEP, WHO and the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Panelists briefed journalists on the implications of a global mercury treaty for Africa.

Much of the discussion focused on artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) and its effects on human health and the environment on the continent.

ASGM remains the largest demand sector for mercury globally, with an estimated 1300 tonnes set to be used in 2011.

ASGM is practiced in around 70 countries, almost half of which are in Africa. Virtually all the mercury used in small scale gold mining is released into the environment, posing long-term risks for mine workers and communities living downstream or downwind from mines.

Abiola Olanipekun, INC Bureau member representing the African regional group, told the press briefing that alternative processes for gold extraction which do not use mercury now exist and that investment in such methods was essential for reducing environmental and health risks.

“When it comes to mercury, Africa is the most vulnerable region”, said Ms. Olanipekun. “Africa needs these alternatives so that the environment and people’s futures aren’t jeopardised. That’s why these negotiations are so important”

Ludovic Bernaudat of the UN Industrial Development Organization told journalists that the high price of gold (currently over US$1700 per ounce) is sparking a ‘gold rush’ in many countries, posing a timely challenge of how to reduce the use of mercury in the growing, but largely informal small-scale mining sector.

Under its Global Mercury Partnership, which brings together governments, civil society and the private sector, UNEP is assisting African countries in developing national mercury inventories. As well as forming the basis of mercury reduction targets, developing comparable sets of data from different countries can serve to enhance international co-operation on mercury. Inventory projects led by the Global Mercury Partnership are currently being explored in Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mali, for example.

As mercury is present as a contaminant in virtually all fossil fuels, reducing emissions of mercury from coal-fired power stations and the burning of oil and gas is also a priority for many countries at the INC negotiations. Other key issues include the presence of mercury in cosmetics, such as skin lightening creams, medical instruments such as thermometers, or mercury-containing hazardous wastes such as batteries and fluorescent lamps.

The INC negotiations, for which UNEP provides the Secretariat, are at the half-way stage in Nairobi, with the aim of achieving a global treaty on mercury by 2013.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Nairobi session, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said: “It is our obligation through this treaty to create the conditions by which the world will rapidly reduce the likelihood of exposure (to mercury) in both a health and environmental context”.

“The key at the end of 2013 must be that we have a treaty that sets the world on a course where mercury is less likely to affect the lives of people on this planet”, added Mr. Steiner.

Among the key objectives for the INC negotiations are:

  • Reducing the supply of mercury onto the market and enhancing capacity for environmentally-sound storage of mercury
  • Reducing mercury demand for products, processes and international trade
  • Reducing atmospheric emission of mercury
  • Addressing mercury-containing waste and remediation of contaminated sites
  • Increasing knowledge and capacity building on mercury
  • Arrangements for technical and financial assistance to support implementation

There are important development and economic factors to be considered. Artisanal and small-scale gold-mining, for example, contributes an estimated US$10 billion to the global economy and employs around 10-15 million people.

However, low-mercury and mercury-free solutions are available for gold mining (such as gravity separation or concentration methods) which can reduce health and environment risks while avoiding impact on livelihoods.

UNEP INC3 Website

Summary of INC3 outcomes

UNEP Global Mercury Partnership

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