Removing Mercury, Protecting People's Health: Now That the Minamata Convention Has Come into Effect, Developing Countries Are Struggling to Phase out the Use of Mercury to Protect People's Health

By Herberman, Jan Dirk | Bulletin of the World Health Organization, January 2018 | Go to article overview

Removing Mercury, Protecting People's Health: Now That the Minamata Convention Has Come into Effect, Developing Countries Are Struggling to Phase out the Use of Mercury to Protect People's Health


Herberman, Jan Dirk, Bulletin of the World Health Organization


Every day children who work alongside adults in Ghana's small-scale mining sector are risking their lives without realizing it.

"Children are involved in small-scale gold mining in many ways," says Edith Clarke, Head of the Programme on Environmental and Occupational Health at the Ghana Health Service in Accra.

"They get ore from gold mines and together with the mercury, they bring it to their homes, where they use the mercury to extract gold from the ore," Clarke says, adding that under a 1998 national law, children should be protected from such exploitative child labour--defined as work that deprives a child of its health, education or development.

To extract the precious metal, the mercury is heated in a pan on an open fire, poured over the ore and eventually the mercury separates the gold from the other substances.

This rudimentary practice--known as artisanal and small-scale gold mining --is a major source of income for many families in Ghana.

But, because of the widespread use of mercury--especially inhalation of mercury vapours during the refining process--and other occupational and environmental risks associated with this mining sector, this form of gold mining is risky.

"Mercury is toxic for human health," explains Carolyn Vickers, team leader for chemical safety at the World Health Organization (WHO). "It poses a particular threat to development in utero and in early life."

Mercury, an element also known as quicksilver, exists in several forms, each with different toxic effects, including on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. Exposure to it can result in severe illness and death.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury was established by the international community to protect people and the environment from mercury use.

The agreement is named after a Japanese city where a chemical factory released large quantities of mercury into Minamata Bay contaminating the water and killing the fish.

As a result of eating contaminated fish, about 900 people died and more than 2000 people suffered the effects of mercury poisoning--Minamata disease --over more than three decades.

The Minamata Convention, which calls for the phasing out of the use of mercury from several sectors, was adopted in 2013 and entered into force this year.

So far 84 countries have ratified the treaty, which prohibits new mercury mines, requires countries to phase out existing mines and bans the manufacture, import and export of mercury in many products.

Some of these products are in the health sector and include sphygmomanometers, for measuring blood pressure, and mercury thermometers.

An important exception is thiomersal (ethyl-mercury), which is used in some human and animal vaccines, as there is no evidence that the amount of thiomersal used in vaccines poses a health risk.

Parties to the convention--the countries that have ratified the treaty are expected to draw up plans to reduce and, if possible, eliminate the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining and set thresholds for emissions of mercury from industrial sources, including coal-fired power plants.

"While focused primarily on mercury, the Convention also provides an important platform for multisectoral engagement to address other health issues, for example, those affecting small-scale gold miners and their communities," Vickers says.

But, the convention presents challenges, particularly for developing countries. "It is quite complex to implement and this will take time," Clarke says.

For Siriwan Chandanachulaka, Director of the Environmental Health Bureau in the Ministry of Public Health in Thailand, there are three main challenges for implementation: the large number of sectors concerned, the many stakeholders involved and the high cost of replacing mercury.

"We need to phase out mercury-added products--such as thermometers and sphygmomanometers, as well as amalgam tooth fillings as they also contain mercury--that have been used widely in hospitals and clinics for many years," she says. …

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