New global agreement to end health risks and environmental damage from mercury pollution has come into force. Mercury is a heavy metal which accumulates in the body and is listed by the UN as one of the top 10 chemicals endangering health and the environment.
UN Convention on Mercury Use
The world's first Convention to protect the environment and human health in close to a decade, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, entered into force this week , committing its 74 Parties to reducing the risks to human health and the environment from the harmful release of mercury and mercury compounds. Mercury is recognized to be particularly harmful to unborn children and infants.
Uganda and other governments party to the Convention are now legally bound to take a range of measures to protect human health and the environment by addressing mercury throughout its lifecycle.
This includes banning new mercury mines, phasing-out existing ones, and regulating the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, manufacturing processes, and the production of everyday items such as cosmetics, light bulbs, batteries and teeth fillings.
Uganda signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury in October 2013.
The National Environment Management Authority and the Directorate of Geological Survey and Mines have been working towards phasing down the use of mercury.
The burning of coal in cement factories and Artisanal gold mining are according to National Environment Authority (NEMA) responsible for almost 20,000Kgs of mercury that are released in the air.
NEMMA says more than 3700Kgs of mercury are dumped in the country's wetlands and lakes including Lake Victoria.
NEMA Executive Director, Dr. Tom Okurut recently told Uganda Radio Network that the National Environment Act is being amended to among others incorporate issues of chemical management including mercury handling, storage and disposal.
The amendment are in a the Environment Bill which is likely to be passed by parliament by the end of
Mercury is also used in dental amalgam, electrical appliances-switches and fluorescent lamps, laboratory and medical instruments like clinical thermometers.
National drug Authority has also been warning of presence of mercury in antibacterial and skin-lightening creams on the market.
Minamata Convention on Mercury also seeks to reduce emissions as side effects from other industrial processes, such as coal-fired power stations, waste incineration, cement clinker production, and contains measures on the interim storage of mercury, on mercury waste and on measures to reduce the risks of contaminated sites.
“The Minamata Convention shows that our global work to protect our planet and its people can continue to bring nations together. We did it for the Ozone layer and now we're doing it for mercury, just as we need to do it for climate change – a cause that the Minamata Convention will also serve. Together, we can clean up our act," said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.
There is no safe level of exposure to mercury nor are there cures for mercury poisoning, which at high levels causes irreversible neurological and health damage.
Unborn children and babies are the most vulnerable, along with populations who eat fish contaminated with mercury, those who use mercury at work.
Up to 8,900 tonnes of mercury are emitted each year. It can be released naturally through the weathering of mercury-containing rocks, forest fires and volcanic eruptions, but significant emissions also come from human processes, particularly coal burning and artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Mining alone exposes up to 15 million workers in 70 different countries to mercury poisoning, including child labourers.
Like other heavy metals, mercury persists in the environment and builds up in human and animal tissue, particularly in fish. Because it is easily vaporized, mercury can be transported through the air over long distances far removed from its original emission source, polluting air, water and soil.
Signed by 128 countries, the Convention takes its name from the most severe mercury poisoning disaster in history, which came to light in Minamata, Japan in May 1956, after sustained dumping of industrial wastewaters into Minamata Bay, beginning in the 1930s. Local villages who ate fish and shellfish from the bay started suffering convulsions, psychosis, loss of consciousness and coma. In all, thousands of people were certified as having directly suffered from mercury poisoning, now known as Minamata disease.