TOKYO - Delegates from around the world paid tribute Wednesday to the hundreds of Japanese who were killed by decades-long mercury dumping as they gathered at the site of the country's worst industrial poisoning.
Representatives from 140 countries and territories laid flowers at a monument to the dead at Minamata in southern Japan, before the signing on Thursday of an international treaty to control the use of the toxic metal.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is named after the Japanese city where tens of thousands were made ill - around 2,000 of whom have since died - by eating fish and shellfish taken from waters polluted by discharge from a local factory.
The scandal first came to light in the 1950s, but it was not until more than 50 years later that the state fully recognised the extent of the problem.
Mercury poisoning affects the body's immune system and the development of the brain and nervous system, posing the greatest risk to foetuses and infants.
The substance, also known as quicksilver, is found in products ranging from electrical switches, thermometers and light bulbs to amalgam dental fillings.
The treaty to be signed Thursday sets a phase-out date of 2020 for a long list of products - including mercury thermometers - while the text gives governments 15 years to end all mercury mining.
But environmental groups say it stops short of addressing the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, which directly threatens the health of miners including child labourers in developing countries.
They also warn of health risks from eating the mercury-polluted meat of whales and dolphins, which sometimes feature on the diets of coastal communities in Japan and elsewhere.