10 February 2003
Conference Backs Efforts to Curb Mercury Pollution
By MARC LACEY
Kenya, Feb. 8 — Delegates attending a United Nations environmental
conference here last week endorsed a global crackdown on pollution
caused by mercury, although the United States blocked efforts for
binding restrictions on its use.
a highly toxic heavy metal, is particularly dangerous for infants
and children, and it can be passed from pregnant women to their
fetuses. Human exposure to mercury comes from a variety of sources
— consumption of fish, occupational and household uses, dental
fillings and some vaccines.
United Nations Environment Program will begin assisting countries,
particularly those in the developing world, in devising methods
for cutting emissions of mercury from sources like coal-fired power
stations and incinerators. Further action, possibly including a
binding protocol, was put off until 2005.
decision followed the release of a report outlining a significant
global threat to humans and wildlife from mercury, a naturally occurring
metal. Mercury exposure can cause development problems and can affect
the brain, kidneys and liver.
conference drew more than 1,000 delegates from 130 nations. The
delegates agreed that "there is sufficient evidence of significant
global adverse impacts from mercury and its compounds to warrant
further international action to reduce the risks to human health
and the environment."
United Nations report found that mercury travels throughout the
earth at a far greater rate than was previously known, circulating
between the air, water and soil as well as in living things. Even
regions without significant mercury releases of their own, such
as the Arctic, were found to be adversely affected by the global
spread of mercury.
has many industrial applications, although safer alternatives exist.
It is used in small-scale mining of gold and silver as well as in
thermometers, fluorescent lamps and some paints. The substance is
also contained in many skin-lightening creams as well as in some
European delegates had sought to begin laying the groundwork for
a global protocol on mercury. But Bush administration officials,
who have opposed such wide-reaching approaches to a range of environmental
issues, had argued that it would take too long and be too costly
to pursue such a global convention.
the American officials pressed for public awareness programs to
spread the word of the risks of mercury. Such efforts would be aimed
at especially vulnerable groups, like pregnant women and people
living in areas with small-scale gold and silver mining operations,
where mercury is a particular threat.
acknowledge that the case has been made for action," said an
American official involved in the negotiations. "But instead
of negotiating for years and spending millions of dollars on a global
convention, we want quick action."
negotiators successfully pushed for language leaving open the possibility
of a global convention in the future. The issue will be revisited
at a follow-up meeting in South Korea in 2005. The Europeans also
wanted the effects of other heavy metals, including lead and cadmium,
to be reviewed.
single country can resolve the mercury problem on its own,"
said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury
Policy Project, an organization working to focus attention on
the problem. "There are alternatives for mercury uses, but
there is no alternative to global cooperation."
data on global exposure to mercury remains incomplete. Many developing
countries also are far less apt to notify their populations about
the risks of mercury, like the dangers of too much seafood for pregnant
United States is far ahead of many other countries when it comes
to awareness of mercury's risks. The Food and Drug Administration
and 41 states warn consumers to limit their intake of certain fish
— or avoid eating them altogether — because of their
mercury levels. Ten states advise pregnant women and children to
limit consumption of canned tuna, the most heavily consumed fish
in the United States.
from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that one in 12 women
of childbearing age in the United States have unsafe mercury levels,
translating into more than 300,000 children born each year at risk
of exposure to mercury.