Nations Agree on Global Mercury Limits

More than 140 nations agreed yesterday to a treaty to limit mercury emissions and releases. Delegates in Geneva concluded 4 years of negotiations with an all-night session, coming to final agreement at 7:00 a.m. Saturday. The Minamata Convention—named for a city in Japan where thousands of people were injured or killed by mercury poisoning—will require its signatory nations to phase out the use of mercury in certain types of batteries, fluorescent lamps, and soaps and cosmetics by 2020.

The agreement also requires countries to limit emissions of mercury from coal-fired power plants, waste incineration, and cement factories. Countries in which small-scale gold mining takes place must draw up strategies to reduce or eliminate mercury use in that sector. Coal power plants and unregulated gold mining are the world's two largest sources of mercury emissions and releases into the environment.

The delegates agreed to limit mercury amalgam use in dental fillings, and to phase out the use of the element in medical thermometers and blood pressure devices.

The treaty will, however, allow the use of mercury as a preservative in vaccines. Many in the public health community had argued strongly that banning mercury from vaccines would make many common vaccines much more expensive and harder to deliver, potentially leaving hundreds of thousands of children in poor countries vulnerable to deadly diseases.

The Zero Mercury Working Group, a coalition of non-governmental organizations that lobbies for strong mercury protection measures, said the treaty is a step in the right direction. It said, however, that limits on the two main sources of mercury contamination are disappointingly weak. Controls on coal-fired power plants don't go into effect for 5 to 10 years, the group noted in a statement. The group also would have preferred the treaty call for a complete phase-out of mercury used in artisanal gold mining.

The treaty will be open for signatures at a special meeting in Minamata, Japan, in October.