U.S. backs call for global treaty on mercury use

Published: February 17, 2009

The United States has shifted its stance to call for a legally-binding global treaty to phase out deadly mercury use that threatens the health of people worldwide, officials said on Tuesday.

Hopes had been high ahead of the conference that the new administration of President Barack Obama would support the European Union’s calls for an international treaty to ban mercury. Some other states favor a voluntary approach.

The new policy was unveiled by the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and sustainable development, Daniel Reifsnyder, late on Monday at the start of a major U.N. gathering of environment ministers in Kenya.

“We have now arrived at a point where there is a call to come together to launch an intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an international agreement on mercury,” Reifsnyder told the February 16-20 meeting in Nairobi.

“The United States now joins that call.”

About 6,000 tons of mercury — a heavy metal known for more than a century to damage the human nervous system — enter the environment every year. Mercury’s other effects include liver damage, memory loss or disturbances to vision.


Of the total, 2,000 tons is from coal burned in power stations and homes. Increased coal use in Asia means emissions may be rising, U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) experts fear.

UNEP head Achim Steiner has urged the scores of ministers meeting in Kenya to make a landmark decision on mercury after seven years of talks that would lift a global health threat from the lives of people around the globe.

The new strategy being considered at UNEP’s annual governing council meeting would cover reducing demand in industrial products and processes, ranging from gold mining to some liquid crystal displays. It would also seek to cut emissions to the atmosphere and clean up contaminated sites.

Reifsnyder said: “Neither the United States, nor any other country, can achieve sufficient reductions of mercury risks to protect the health of its citizens without serious cooperation internationally to reduce global mercury emissions.”

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