MAC: Mines and Communities

Conference for adoption of Minamata Convention on Mercury

Published by MAC on 2013-10-07
Source: The Diplomat, Economist Blog (2013-10-04)

In January 140 countries signed and ratified the Minamata Convention (Mercury Treaty), agreeing to cut mercury pollution by setting enforceable international limits. See: First UN Treaty on Mercury Control

Today, on 7 October, the open-ended intergovernmental preparatory meeting starts for the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Minamata Convention on Mercury - to be held from 9 to 11 October 2013 in Kumamoto and Minamata, Japan. 

At the Conference, the text of the Convention will be presented for adoption and opened for signature. More information is available from: http://www.unep.org/hazardoussubstances/MinamataConvention/DiplomaticConference/tabid/105832/Default.aspx

Mercury Treaty: Hope for Child Gold Miners?

By Juliane Kippenberg

The Diplomat

4 October 2013

"Ibrahim" is a 12-year old boy working in a small Tanzanian gold mine. One of his main jobs is to separate gold from the ore by using mercury, a toxic metal. Using his bare hands, he mixed mercury with ground-up ore to create a mercury-gold amalgam, then burned off the mercury off to retrieve the raw gold. Ibrahim has worked in small-scale gold mines since he was 9 and has never been to school. In his words, "I always burn gold."

Mercury, a liquid metal, is commonly used across Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the gold mining process as a cheap and easy way to extract gold from ore. But it is also toxic to human health and the environment. Mercury attacks the central nervous system and can cause heart failure and developmental delays. It is particularly harmful to children and can result in life-long disability.

Hundreds of thousands of adults and children work in Tanzania's small-scale gold mines. And Tanzania is not alone. The International Labor Organization estimates that one million children work in mining globally. Human Rights Watch also has documented children's mercury exposure in mining communities in Mali, Ghana, and Papua New Guinea.

For these children, mercury may be cutting their lives short. When I visited a mining community in Tanzania recently, I spoke to children working with mercury and observed toddlers inhaling toxic fumes from the burning mercury-gold amalgam. I asked myself: What can be done to protect these children from mercury? Who even cares?

The answer may come from far away. Minamata, a small Japanese fishing town, is the site of an industrial accident where leaked mercury killed at least 1,700 people and left many more disabled. Governments from around the world will gather there in October to sign a new international environmental treaty: The Minamata Convention on Mercury.

Under this new international convention, governments will be required to reduce mercury use and exposure in various products and industries. They will be obligated "to prevent the exposure of vulnerable populations, particularly children and women of child-bearing age" to mercury used in small-scale gold mining. This is the first time international law has recognized the risk of mercury exposure to children, making their protection a duty of governments that join the treaty.

Under the convention, governments will have to educate miners about the risks of mercury use, prevent illegal mercury trade, promote mercury-free alternatives, and act to eliminate the most harmful forms of mercury use-such as the open burning of amalgam practiced by Ibrahim.

The convention, unusual for an environmental treaty, also recognizes the role of health ministries, promoting measures to monitor, test, and treat mercury exposure. During the negotiations process for the treaty, Tanzania and many other countries with small scale mining supported these critical steps to protect miners from mercury.

Governments in all parts of the world should sign, ratify, and-most important-put into practice the Minamata Convention, which will bring new momentum to working to solve a longtime problem. For Ibrahim and the many other children working with mercury in Tanzania and all around the world, this convention could offer an escape from a job that is too dangerous for anyone.

Juliane Kippenberg is a Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch. She has documented mercury use in small-scale gold mines in Tanzania and other countries and participated in the negotiations for the Minamata Convention.


Playing with mercury

Baobab blog - Economist

30 September 2013

Prestea - NESTLED in a former cocoa-farming region in southwestern Ghana, the town of Prestea boasts more than 150 small-scale gold mines in the backyards of abandoned farms. The town, with a population of about 35,000, also sits covered in permanent smog-a red dust that stains white goats crimson. It is the result of lethal mercury, on which miners all over Ghana rely to refine their gold. In Prestea, where gravediggers are in greater supply than doctors, death from mercury poisoning is routine.

"There is a sickness in us. We can die from the dust. It sometimes gives us many sicknesses, in your liver and in your heart," explains 27-year-old Abu Quarm. He has been mining for ten years, rising with the hot sub-Saharan sun to work 12-to-14-hour days in the open-air mining field in the back of his deceased brother's house. Mr Quarm explains that just a few months ago, he lost his brother to the sickness: it began with dizziness and migraines and evolved into exhaustion, a loss of appetite and spastic episodes. Few small-scale miners in Ghana are taught to identify the harmful health implications of mercury. No official statistics exist, but Mr Quarm reckons Prestea averages ten mining-related deaths a month.

Brandishing from his pocket an eye-drop-container-sized white bottle of mercury and squeezing the liquid metal into his bare hand, Mr Quarm says there can be no gold without mercury. All miners use the dancing liquid metal, he explains, because it pulls gold dust together into a solid nugget. The miners then burn this to get rid of the mercury, producing solid gold, as well as the red smog that pervades the town. Mercury sells for about 40GH ($20) a bottle and is shipped in legally, primarily from China, to Ghana's major ports.

Ghana has the highest mercury emissions in Africa, but the problem is widespread. In the past few years, tens of thousands of small-scale mining sites have surfaced across Asia, Latin America as well as other parts of Africa. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimates that between 1,000 and 4,000 tonnes of mercury are released into the air and water globally each year.

Which is why, after four years of negotiations, UNEP is organising the first global conference to confront rising mercury emissions and the threat to the environment. In January 140 countries signed and ratified the Mercury Treaty, agreeing to cut mercury pollution by setting enforceable international limits; now a conference will convene on October 9th in Minamata, Japan to put the plan into action.

But in countries like Ghana, where mercury is legally accessible on the streets and deeply engrained in the mining culture, many are sceptical about what the meeting can accomplish. The alternatives used by big mining companies, which involve heavy machinery and cyanide, are costly and time consuming. "Try to put yourself in their shoes," says Gavin Hilson, a mining expert at the University of Surrey. "Some people drink tea with too much sugar or smoke a lot, and we know it's bad. We're trying to tell villagers who have been using mercury their whole lives to change their method. There needs to be a constant presence in that village, to continually educate these people and show them that there are viable alternatives. It's a collective responsibility."


How Global Change Will Impact Mercury around the World

US Geological Survey news release - http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=3707&from=rss&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter#.Ukk5LH-E7bp

27 September 2013

Rising global temperatures and changing human actions will significantly affect the behavior and distribution of mercury worldwide, according to a recent article by the U.S. Geological Survey and Harvard University.

Mercury, especially in the form of methylmercury, is an extremely toxic chemical to all life forms. It occurs both naturally and as the result of human activities. A majority of mercury releases to the environment presently are atmosphere emissions from human activities, and reemissions of previously deposited mercury from soils and the oceans. The largest sources of man-made mercury emissions are small-scale gold mining and burning coal for electrical generation.

"Studies like this help us better understand the overall effects of multiple impacts on the environment," said USGS Acting Director Suzette Kimball. "We are just beginning to understand many of the consequences of global climate change and how interrelated many environmental issues truly are."

Several seemingly unconnected aspects of climate change are expected to affect mercury at the global scale, according to the article. In the atmosphere, higher temperatures and weaker air circulation patterns from climate change will likely have significant impacts on the atmospheric lifetime and patterns of mercury deposition.

In most climate change scenarios, storms will be less frequent but more intense, resulting in larger amounts of mercury being released from the soil through erosion that may end up in rivers, lakes and oceans, the study said. When mercury reaches these surface waters, it can be processed by naturally occurring bacteria into the neuro-toxic methylmercury.

In addition, the article explained that climate change will likely lead to more frequent and intense forest fires, which release mercury from relatively stable and safe storage in the soil and allow it to be transported downwind and then redeposited and possibly converted into methylmercury.

"The intersection of the complex behavior of mercury in the environment with the myriad of aspects of global change provided a significant challenge to describe in this paper," said USGS scientist David Krabbenhoft, the article's lead author. "Although the science behind mercury research has exponentially increased in the past couple decades, providing reliable information to resource managers and decision makers on such complex topics remains a significant research challenge."

Changes in human behavior will also have substantial impacts on global mercury, according to the article. Current human emissions of mercury total 2,000 metric tons per year. Under the best-case scenario of curbing human emissions and mitigating climate change, that number could fall to 800 metric tons per year by 2050. If no actions are taken and a business-as-usual approach is followed, the number will likely increase to 3,400 metric tons per year by 2050.

Human activity has already had a significant impact on the release of mercury emissions, the article explained. For example, since the Industrial Revolution and widespread development of mercury emitting processes like coal combustion for electric power generation, soil records show a 3 to 5 fold increase in atmospheric deposition since the 1880s, and 7 to10 fold since antiquity. During the 20th century, coal-fired power plants dominated the human emissions of mercury.

However, with the current high cost of gold and relatively inexpensive liquid mercury, small-scale gold mining has taken over as the primary source of human emissions of mercury. Mercury is used to separate gold from rock deposits, and is often done in a manner that results in the miners and the local environment being exposed to toxic levels of mercury, according to the report.

Positive steps at controlling mercury emissions have been taken, though, Krabbenhoft noted. In 2011, the United States enacted the first-ever emissions regulations on coal-fired electricity-generating power plants. However, the United States only accounts for six to ten percent of global emissions.

To tackle global emissions, the United Nations Environmental Program brought together 140 countries to craft the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which is a binding resolution that includes emissions standards for mercury. It is scheduled to be signed in October, 2013.

USGS provides information on mercury sources; mercury cycling in the atmosphere, land surface, lakes, streams and oceans; and bioaccumulation and toxicity of mercury. This information helps land and resource managers understand and reduce mercury hazards to people and wildlife. Learn more about this article online [http://toxics.usgs.gov/highlights/mercury_science.html].

Direct link to article - http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6153/1457

Reference

Krabbenhoft, D.P., and Sunderland, E.M., 2013, Global change and mercury: Science, v. 341, no. 6153, p. 1457-1458, doi:10.1126/science.1242838.

Contact Information:
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Office of Communications and Publishing
12201 Sunrise Valley Dr, MS 119
Reston, VA 20192

David Krabbenhoft
Phone: 608-821-3843

Alex Demas
Phone: 703-648-4421

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