This week, countries from all over the world will convene in Geneva for the inaugural Conference of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which aims to phase out the use of this dangerous neurotoxin. Estonia, as the holder of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, is representing EU member states at this landmark international event.
The Minamata Convention was initiated to protect human health and wildlife against mercury released into the environment. It is named after the devastating mercury poisoning incident that occurred in the 1950s in Minamata, Japan, resulting in thousands of deaths. The Convention entered into force on 16 August 2017, and the Conference of the Parties taking place this week is the first of its kind.
The European Union has largely banned or minimised the use of mercury and therefore serves as a role model for other regions where mercury is still being used. “Heavy metal pollution is yet another example of an environmental problem that does not recognise national borders.
It is naive to think that phasing out the use of mercury in Europe will be enough. In order to protect human health and the environment from mercury, other regions must also take relevant measures,” said Kaupo Heinma (pictured), Head of the Environmental Management Department of the Estonian Ministry of the Environment, in his opening speech on behalf of the European Union, adding that what happened several decades ago in Minamata must never happen again.
Mercury spreads via air and water, and its effects are felt far from the source of pollution. When mercury gets into water, it is absorbed by aquatic organisms and enters the food chain, accumulating in fish and other marine organisms as the highly dangerous methylmercury. Methylmercury is a form of mercury that is extremely hazardous to the nervous system and to other organs. Exposure to large quantities of mercury damages the brains, lungs, kidneys, and immune systems of living organisms. In the human food chain, it is particularly dangerous to pregnant women, infants, and children.
In Estonia, the content of heavy metals in waterbodies remains within permissible limits and therefore, is not harmful to health. A study conducted in 2013–2014 on the fish in the Baltic Sea found that although mercury content was relatively high in the fish of Lake Peipus it remained below the limits of food safety.
The most toxic form of mercury, however, is its vapour, which is mostly emitted into the air by factories using mercury or its compounds. In Estonia, 500–600 kg of mercury compounds and vapours are emitted into the air annually, mainly by power stations in Ida-Viru County.
The mercury compounds in ash are captured by electric filters, which is the best possible technology for this purpose. As oil shale ash, resulting from the combustion of oil shale (both bottom and fly ash), contains negligible quantities of mercury compounds, no significant effects on the environment or human health have been observed.
There are no industries in Estonia that use mercury, and it enters the country only as an ingredient of some products. In Estonia, mercury waste is mainly generated from luminaires containing mercury, and is exported to neighbouring countries for handling.
The history of the Minamata Convention dates back to the 1950s when a Japanese chemical factory released its mercury-containing wastewater into the Minamata Bay. As a result, local fish contained high quantities of methylmercury and many locals became gravely ill. An investigation led to the local chemical factory operated by the Chisso Corporation. The resulting mercury poisoning, which primarily damages the central nervous system, was named Minamata disease. The outbreak of Minamata disease claimed thousands of lives, and is among the four major environmental pollution diseases in Japan.
The Minamata Convention entered into force on 16 August 2017. The Conference of the Parties taking place this week is of great importance, as it is set to adopt a number of documents that will serve as the basis for efficient implementation of the Convention.
The Convention will streamline the life cycle of mercury, from mining as a main mineral resource to the handling of mercury-containing waste. In addition, the Convention aims to limit international mercury trade, the manufacture of products containing mercury, and the use of mercury in production processes.