Minamata convention on mercury adopted

Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara shakes hands with a participant Thursday at the diplomatic conference in Kumamoto where the Minamata Convention on Mercury was adopted.

KUMAMOTO - A UN diplomatic conference on Thursday adopted the Minamata Convention on Mercury to regulate the global mining and trade of mercury and the manufacturing of products containing the substance.

The convention is designed to control the global output of mercury to prevent harm to health and the environment. Participating countries and territories at the conference will now begin procedures to sign and ratify the treaty.

The United Nations Environment Program, which organised the conference, aims to have the convention take effect in 2016.

The preamble of the treaty stipulates parties to the convention recognise "the substantial lessons of Minamata Disease, in particular the serious health and environmental effects resulting from mercury pollution, and the need to ensure proper management of mercury and the prevention of such events in the future."

Minamata disease has been dubbed the "origin of Japan's environmental problems." With the determination of not repeating the tragedy of the disease again, the government proposed calling the convention the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

The convention was unanimously adopted at the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on Minamata Convention on Mercury at a plenary session Thursday morning in Kumamoto city. About 1,000 participants representing about 140 countries and territories participated in the session.

Ahead of the adoption, Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara, who chaired the meeting, said Japan was selected as the venue of the convention due to the sad history of Minamata. He called for the early ratification of the treaty so it could be implemented as soon as possible.

The convention is designed to regulate the mining, export and import of mercury, as well as the production of products using the substance and its emission into the atmosphere, soil and water. To be specific, the mining of mercury will be banned within 15 years after the convention takes effect, while no new mine development will be permitted. Meanwhile, manufacturing, exports and imports of blood pressure gauges and antiseptics using mercury, along with fluorescent lamps containing a certain amount of mercury, will be banned, in principle, from 2020.

When newly constructing a coal-fired thermal power plant that will emit mercury into the atmosphere, a plant operator will be obliged to adopt the best technology available to curb the emission. As mercury is being used the most at small-scale gold mines, the convention included a provision calling for reducing the amount of mercury to be used and emitted at such mines.

The convention is also expected to be ratified by China, which accounts for 30 per cent of the world's emission of mercury into the air, and the United States, which has not concluded any conventions concerning chemical materials and wastes.

Mercury discharged either into the air or into rivers as a result of industrial activities accumulates in fish and other seafood, causing harmful effects on the nervous system of humans when eaten.

Although it is hardly used in Japan, mercury is still used in developing countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America, raising concerns over health hazards.

The convention will take effect 90 days after 50 countries and territories have ratified it. The Environment Ministry will contribute about $1 million (S$1.2 million) to such international organisations as the UN Environment Program.