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UN takes on mercury pollution with Japan leading the way

UNEP: Mercury emissions to air in 2010

Global distribution of anthropogenic mercury emissions to air in 2010 | UNEP Global Mercury Assessment 2013

In an effort to combat mercury pollution, the United Nations has introduced a treaty aimed at curbing the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining operations and various industrial activities.

The legally binding treaty was officially adopted as international law on Thursday, with Japan – a country notorious for mercury poisoning – becoming one of the first signatories.

UN officials met in Minamata – a Japanese city known for mass mercury contamination in the mid-20th century.

The treaty is designed to decrease the use of the metal in products and to curb illegal mining. Small-scale gold minig and coal-fired power stations are the biggest contributors to mercury pollution worldwide, according to the UN. 

In a report published earlier this year, the UN warned about the effects of mercury, particularly in developing countries. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, exposure to the metal can cause brain, kidney and digestive system damage.

Member nations originally approved the treaty in January 2013 after four years of negotiations.

Under the force of the new law, a variety of mercury-containing products will be banned by 2020. These include batteries, certain types of fluorescent lamps and cosmetics, among others.

Countries are also required to draw up plans to curb artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations.

As for other activities, the treaty will target emissions from large industrial facilities – coal-fired power plants among them.

Japan, Norway and Switzerland have pledged initial funding to speed up the process over the next three to five years.