Giving Compass' Take:
- Tristan Ahtone reports that mercury poses a serious public health threat, particularly to indigenous communities.
- What role can you play in helping communities address the threat of mercury and other environmental health hazards?
- Learn how indigenous knowledge can help protect ecosystems.
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There is still no agreement on a common, global method to measure and identify mercury-contaminated waste from industrial sources, like chemical manufacturers or oil and gas operators. Mercury can still also be purchased online and traded internationally, and states could not agree on when to pull it from tooth fillings.
But there were some successes: Nations have agreed to ban the use of mercury as a preservative in cosmetics by 2025 as well as to increase support for Indigenous peoples in future negotiations.
Mercury — the silvery, highly toxic heavy metal — still poses a serious environmental and health threat around the world, and last week, world leaders met in Geneva for five days of negotiations in a bid to control mercury pollution, trade, and use. Mercury is used in a range of products including skin-lightening cosmetics, batteries, fluorescent lighting, pesticides, and dental amalgams to fill cavities. It’s also a byproduct of coal-fired power plants and waste incineration.
A decade ago, the United Nations adopted the Minamata Convention on Mercury to eliminate the effects of the chemical on people and the environment. Named after Minamata Bay in Japan, where mercury-tainted wastewater poisoned more than 2,000 people in the 1950s and ’60s, the debilitating illness was dubbed Minamata disease with symptoms including hearing and speech impairment, loss of coordination, muscle weakness, and vision impairment. Exposure to mercury produces significant, adverse neurological and health effects, especially in fetuses and infants. Human exposure to the chemical typically comes from eating contaminated fish where the chemical bioaccumulates, dental amalgams, and occupational exposure at jobs where mercury is present, like in mines, waste facilities, and dentists’ offices.
The biggest driver of the mercury market by far is artisanal and small-scale gold-mining operations, where one of the fastest, most cost-effective ways to extract gold from ore is to mix it with mercury, separating gold powder and flecks from low-quality deposits. Artisanal and small-scale gold-mining operations account for nearly 20 percent of the world’s gold supply, which means the rise and fall of the mercury trade is driven by demand for gold.
These operations are particularly prevalent in the Amazon, Indonesia, and western Africa, and release 35 percent of all mercury pollution to the environment, creating newly toxic sites at rates that vastly outpace cleanup efforts and impacting both Indigenous peoples as well as local communities. Representatives from Latin American, the Caribbean, Australia, and Canada noted that both Indigenous peoples, as well as local communities, are particularly vulnerable to mercury exposure and are among the first to face serious health and environmental impacts from mercury pollution owing to their close relationships with the environment.
Read the full article about mercury by Tristan Ahtone at Grist.