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By Gustavo A. B. da Fonseca
The element that responds to the symbol Hg on the periodic table (from the Greek hydrargyros, or "liquid silver") is still widely used in dental fillings, in the form of amalgam with other metals. It is also used in other fields such as medicine, chlorine industrialization, plastics, compact fluorescent lights, and gold production.
A great calamity had to occur for society to become aware of the health dangers caused by the indiscriminate use of mercury.
In 1956, in a remote fishing village in Japan, where a chemical plant had been dumping large amounts of mercury for decades into Minamata Bay, large-scale poisoning of people and animals attracted the attention of the general public. Mercury bioaccumulates in the environment through ingestion of food and water. Over time, the element becomes concentrated in individual organisms after contamination from their nearby environment.
Described as Minamata disease, this severe form of mercury poisoning is a debilitating neurological syndrome caused by the consumption of heavily contaminated marine organisms.
Because it is easily vaporized, mercury can travel through the air and travel enormous distances, far from the original emission source. Due to the significant volume of mercury that is emitted as a by-product of industrial processes, such as the burning of coal, the production of metals and cement, today traces of mercury can be found in the most remote places on the planet, polluting the air that we breathe and the food we eat.
Small-scale gold mining is currently the largest source of mercury pollution released into the environment: it is responsible for 37% of all global emissions. Mercury readily dissolves gold into an amalgam, and as such is used to extract the precious metal from ore and gold sediments. When miners heat this amalgam, the mercury evaporates, leaving behind pure gold.
This process is used daily by hundreds of thousands of small-scale miners in developing countries, putting their lives at risk and polluting rivers and streams. Since mercury pollution has become a major global problem, since the mid-1990s the Global Environment Facility (GEF) has been funding projects that help reduce these emissions.
But there's still too much to do. Building on these and other efforts, the international community recently agreed to join forces through a new international agreement - the Minamata Convention - an apt name to remind the world that a disaster of such magnitude should never be allowed to strike again. .
In recognition of its experience in providing financial support for the implementation of other global environmental agreements, the GEF has been chosen as the financial mechanism for this new agreement.
In response to increasing responsibility, the GEF significantly increased its support to developing countries by allocating US $ 141 million for initiatives aimed at reducing mercury over the next four years.
In November, the convention's Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee will meet in Bangkok for the first time since the global treaty agreed in October 2013. In a show of force, 128 countries signed the convention; to date seven countries have become full parties.
We hope that many more will ratify it soon. The United States also made history as the first country to sign the agreement.
This is particularly notable given that Minamata is only the second global environmental agreement that country has signed as a full member: the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, signed in the 1980s, was the first. The main emitting countries, including all the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), also signed the agreement, expressing their intention to support the fulfillment of the objectives of the agreement. While the Minamata Convention is a significant step toward protecting people and nature from the dangers of mercury, the real work is just beginning.
We are confident that the November meeting in Bangkok will serve as the first major call for concrete action globally.