UN examines mercury pollution

Governments must speed up efforts to deliver an international agreement on mercury, a leading United Nations figure has said at a major summit examining ways to reduce environmental sources of the poisonous metal.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said scientists have been warning about the dangers to human health, wildlife and the wider environment for well over a century but a global response has yet to be mounted.

UNEP has urged governments to begin setting clear and ambitious targets to reduce global mercury levels following the meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, last week.

It suggested these targets could include phasing out mercury from products and processes by 2020 and reductions in emissions of the metal from coal-fired power stations.

A report released by UNEP earlier this month said coal burning and waste incineration account for about 70% of the total quantified emissions of mercury.

“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,” Mr Steiner said.

“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.”

A second meeting of the working group is expected to be held in late 2008 and campaign groups have stressed that action must be taken at that meeting.

Elena Lymberidi, from the Zero Mercury Working Group – an international coalition of NGOs – said: “World countries’ representatives made first steps towards streamlining global solutions on mercury pollution.

“Support for stronger legally binding commitments are, however, still necessary to ensure a solution to this global crisis.”

Mercury is linked to a wide range of health effects including irreversible damage to the human nervous system, including the brain.

Everyone is thought to have at least trace levels of the metal in their tissues.

Kate Martin

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