MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Gold mining contributes to mercury pollution

Published by MAC on 2007-11-14

Gold mining contributes to mercury pollution

14th November 2007

Gold mining is cited by a UN working group as probably contributing to increased mercury pollution. However, a UNEP report claims that coal burning and waste incineration account for about 70 per cent of the total quantified emissions of this toxic heavy metal.

Global Agreement on Mercury Pollution In the Works

BANGKOK, Thailand, (ENS)

14th November 2007

The soaring price of gold may be increasing mercury pollution locally and worldwide. The poisonous heavy metal is used to extract gold from ore in many artisanal mining operations which involve millions of workers and their families.

Experts also worry that the increased burning of coal, which naturally contains mercury, is causing the toxic to be released into the air and spread around the globe.

In the human body, mercury damages the central nervous system, thyroid, kidneys, lungs, immune system, eyes, gums, and skin. Damage done by mercury that has reached the brain cannot be reversed. There is no known safe exposure level for elemental mercury in humans, and effects can be seen even at very low levels.

These issues are the focus of the first meeting of a new United Nations working group taking place this week in Bangkok.

Governments and experts, industry and civil society groups are meeting under the auspices of the UN Environment Programme's Chemicals Branch to discuss how best to reduce environmental sources of mercury.

A range of options from voluntary measures and initiatives up to legally binding treaties is on the table.

Thai Secretary of Natural Resources and Environment Saksit Tridech welcomed delegates Monday, saying that due to its bioaccumulatative and persistent nature, mercury is becoming a serious global concern.

Governments need to accelerate the effort to deliver an international agreement on mercury, said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, UNEP.

Steiner said scientists have been warning about the dangers to human health, wildlife and the wider environment for more than a century. But still, every person alive today is thought to have at least trace levels of the heavy metal in their tissues.

Mercury is linked with a wide range of health effects including irreversible damage to the human nervous system including the brain and scientists have concluded there is no safe limit when it comes to mercury exposure.

It is true that many countries have, in recent decades, taken steps to reduce mercury uses and releases and to protect their citizens from exposure to this toxic heavy metal. However, the fact remains that a comprehensive and decisive response to the global challenge of mercury is not in place and this needs to be urgently addressed," said Steiner.

"There is no real reason to wait on many of the mercury fronts. Viable alternatives exist for virtually all products containing mercury and industrial processes using mercury," he said.

UNEP is urging governments, working with industry and civil society, to begin setting "clear and ambitious targets" to get global mercury levels down and to set the stage for mercury-free products and processes worldwide.

Such targets might result in an agreement to phase out mercury from products and processes, such as in the manufacture of medical equipment and in chlorine factories, with an aim of realizing mercury-free products by 2020.

Targets would allow reductions in emissions from coal-fired power stations with the additional benefits of reduced greenhouse gases and improved local air quality, UNEP says.

The UN Industrial and Development Organization has a goal to cut by 50 percent the use of mercury in artisanal mining by 2017 en route to a total phase out.

A UNEP report, the Global Environment Outlook-4, issued last month, states that that coal burning and waste incineration account for about 70 per cent of the total quantified emissions of mercury.

"As combustion of fossil fuels is increasing, mercury emissions can be expected to increase, in the absence of control technologies or prevention," says the report, the peer reviewed work of more than 1,000 scientists and experts.

Scientists also are testing suggestions that climate change may be triggering releases of new and re-activation of old deposits of mercury as a result of rising lake temperatures; erosion and the accelerated melting of permafrost, ice sheets and icebergs at the poles.

From here the mercury - in form of methymercury - can enter the global food chain via marine mammals such as whales and seals and internationally caught and traded fish such as swordfish, shark, marlin, mackerel, walleye, sea bass and tuna.

The report of the Bangkok working group meeting will be presented to environment ministers meeting in February in Monaco at UNEP's Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

A second working group meeting is planned for late 2008.

Steiner hopes that at this second meeting, "the international community can finally bring closure to the debate about the way forward and open a new chapter of clear, decisive, action on mercury-action that leads to the setting of clear and ambitious targets in order to deliver measurable reductions to protect human health and the wider environment."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.

La ONU quiere un esfuerzo mundial contra el mercurio

12 de noviembre de 2007

Por Daniel Wallis

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Los países deben acelerar los esfuerzos colectivos para abandonar el uso del mercurio, un metal que es mortal, dijo el lunes el Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente (PNUMA).

Las industrias, desde las mineras a las químicas y las de generación energética, usan este metal pesado tóxico y muchos gobiernos han dado pasos en las últimas décadas para recortar su uso y proteger a los ciudadanos. "Sin embargo, la realidad es que no existe una respuesta global y decisiva contra la amenaza mundial del mercurio y esto ha de abordarse con urgencia," dijo Achim Steiner, responsable de PNUMA, con sede en Nairobi, en un comunicado.

La exposición al mercurio puede dañar el cerebro, el sistema nervioso y al feto en las embarazadas.

Las naciones occidentales han reducido su uso, pero los ecologistas dicen que los países más pobres cada vez dependen más de procesos que incluyen mercurio, como las explotaciones de oro a pequeña escala.

El PNUMA celebra desde el lunes y durante una semana una reunión de ministros y expertos en Tailandia para abordar el problema del mercurio.

Steiner dijo que el mundo estaba demandando una acción rápida.

"Existen alternativas viables para casi todos los productos que contienen mercurio y para los procesos industriales que emplean el mercurio," añadió.

Decenas de ministros de Medio Ambiente que se reunieron en febrero en Kenia acordaron rechazar el uso del mercurio, pero no llegaron a un acuerdo vinculante legalmente que impusiera objetivos estrictos, que es lo que habían demandado los activistas antimercurio y la Unión Europea.

Los activistas culpan a un grupo de países encabezados por Estados Unidos, que rechazaron la idea de un acuerdo vinculante, optando por lo que dijeron que eran un pacto voluntario más flexible, destinado a ayudar a los países en vías de desarrollo a recortar el uso del metal tóxico.

La UE, principal exportador de mercurio del mundo, estudia prohibir las exportaciones para el 2011. Los principales importadores son China e India.


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