After a four year negotiation, controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries will be implemented to minimise the significant health and environmental impacts of the chemical element.

Mercury can cause brain and neurological damage, especially among the young, as well as damage to the kidneys and digestive system.

Victims can also suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well documented problems.

Named after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred as a result of mercury pollution in the mid-20th Century, the Minamata Convention will be open for signatures in Japan in October.

It addresses products and activities ranging from medical equipment such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors.

In addition, it looks at the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury.

Pinpointing populations at risk, boosting medical care and better training of health care professionals in identifying and treating mercury-related effects will also form part of the new agreement.

UN Under-Secretary General and executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which convened the negotiations among over 140 member states in Geneva, Achim Steiner welcomed the outcome.

He argued that the talks in Geneva, which often ran all night, had laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant “whose notoriety had been recognised for well over a century.”

“Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva- in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come. I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible,” he said.

Emissions and releases from small-scale gold mining and from coal-fired power stations represent the biggest source of mercury pollution worldwide.

In response, the treaty will require countries to draw up strategies to reduce the amount of mercury used by such operations.

Mercury containing products including certain batteries, used in implantable medical devices, switches and relays and certain types of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), will be banned by 2020.

Furthermore, the treaty will control mercury emissions and releases from various large industrial facilities ranging from coal-fired power stations and industrial boilers to certain kinds of smelters handling such as zinc and gold.

Initial funding to fast track action until the new treaty comes into force in the expected three to five years’ time has been pledged by Japan, Norway and Switzerland.

Conor McGlone

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