U.N. treaty expected to curb mercury trade

December 26, 2012

By AKEMI KANDA / Staff Writer

Governments next month are expected to agree on restrictions concerning the industrial use and trade of mercury for an international treaty aimed at reducing health hazards and environmental pollution, sources said.

The United Nations treaty is expected to oblige Japan and other countries to properly manage and dispose of excess mercury after exports are curbed under the new rules, the sources said.

Since 2009, when the U.N. Environment Program decided to establish a treaty on mercury, representatives of about 120 countries have participated in negotiations. They are expected to agree on a draft outline in talks in January and to adopt the treaty at a meeting slated for October in Kumamoto Prefecture.

The draft is expected to: list products and production processes in which the use of mercury is banned; restrict imports and exports of mercury to products and production processes authorized to use mercury; reduce the release of mercury into the air, water and soil; enforce proper management of waste containing mercury; halt the development of additional mercury mines.

Among the items tentatively named on the list of banned products are batteries, soaps, cosmetics and pesticides, as well as fluorescent lamps containing mercury exceeding a certain amount.

In the talks next month, representatives are expected to discuss which products and production processes should be banned, when to impose the new rules, and whether to require special equipment that reduces the release of mercury into the air.

Mercury, which exists widely in nature, is used in the production of chemical and industrial products.

But it is hazardous to human health. Mercury poisoning was responsible for Minamata disease, the crippling ailment named after a city in Kumamoto Prefecture, where many people ate marine products contaminated with industrial wastewater.

Japan proposed naming the U.N. treaty the Minamata Treaty.

The use of mercury in Japanese industry dropped significantly after Minamata disease surfaced in the late 1950s.

However, mercury is also produced in the process of smelting copper and zinc, and tons of mercury is retrieved annually from the recycling of fluorescent lamps and button batteries. Most of it is exported.

If the treaty goes into effect, Japanese exports of mercury are expected to drop sharply, creating a need for industries to manage and dispose of the element in a way that does not pollute the environment.

The metal industry and recycling companies will be affected by the new rules.

By AKEMI KANDA / Staff Writer
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Sufferers of Minamata mercury poisoning are shown at an international meeting last year in Chiba Prefecture on a proposed treaty regulating mercury. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Sufferers of Minamata mercury poisoning are shown at an international meeting last year in Chiba Prefecture on a proposed treaty regulating mercury. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Sufferers of Minamata mercury poisoning are shown at an international meeting last year in Chiba Prefecture on a proposed treaty regulating mercury. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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