Mercury a time-bomb to be stopped | WWF

Mercury a time-bomb to be stopped

Mercury continues to be a global problem with approximately 3400 tons emitted globally per year by human activities. The consequences are already beginning to show in humans, wildlife and in the aquatic ecosystems. It is therefore imperative that a global effort be enacted to reduce and eventually stop this "time bomb" from exploding. There are alternatives to mercury and a binding global agreement with financial assistance to developing countries will cause a reduction on demand and subsequent mercury pollution.
WWF Guianas has a specific component under its Guianas Sustainable Management Project (2002-2007), that deals with minimizing the negative impacts of mercury on the environment and humans. In this program the use of retorts is strongly recommended, and these easy-to-use tools have been distributed throughout the Guianas. Other ways to minimize mercury pollution deal with the improvement of mining and processing methods, such as improvement of sluice boxes and clean up.

Rickford Vieira, WWF Guianas Goldmining pollution abatement officer, implements these projects in the Guianas. He regularly meets with gold miners and supports the improvements of their mining techniques and shares information about the effects of mercury on humans and nature. "It is good to see that slowly miners get aware of the dangers involved with mercury and the unsafe handling thereof", said Rickford Vieira.

To make the different stakeholders aware of the problems and solutions associated with goldmining, WWF Guianas produced a documentary called "Goldmining in the Guianas, Mercury a threat to eliminate". This documentary was televised widely in the Guianas and has proven to be helpful to many operating in the sector.

It is well known that mercury is highly toxic, causing damage to the nervous system at even relatively low levels of exposure. It is particularly harmful to the development of unborn children. It collects in human and animal bodies and can be concentrated through the food chain, especially in certain types of fish.

Mercury has no respect for national or regional boundaries, traveling long distances through the atmosphere, and has contaminated the global food supplies at levels posing a significant risk to human health. It is therefore clear that, since present measures are not adequate to sufficiently reduce the risk, further actions must be undertaken at global level and the NGO organized several meeting to discuss a possible global approach.

The European Commission hosted an international conference in October 2006, on managing international supply and demand of mercury. Policy makers, industry representatives, non-governmental organizations and scientists participated in the event. This conference brought together experts and stakeholders from around the world, in open dialogue, the way forward to reduce mercury supply and demand.

On behalf of WWF Guianas Rickford Vieira attended that conference. The purpose of the conference was to raise awareness of mercury issues and to facilitate contacts between producing/exporting countries and consuming nations. "We are happy that the EU has decided to control mercury flows which go to developing countries." said Rickford Vieira, WWF Guianas gold mining pollution abatement coordinator.

"Other developed countries should now take similar measures which will help to better protect gold miners and their families, in developing countries as well as global food supplies." The issue at stake Mercury is considered to be among the highest priority environmental pollutants on the global scale.

About 66% of the mercury emitted to the environment is derived form human activities and the remaining balance is due to natural sources. It is also believed that the mercury cycle has been altered significantly in recent decades by resource management and other environmental conditions such as climate changes.

Mercury occurs in different forms in the environment, methylmercury being the main compound that accumulates in seafood and freshwater fish which is then eaten by humans and wildlife. The brain is the targeted organ that is most sensitive to methylmercury, and damage during the early development is likely to be widespread and permanent.

The EU's Mercury Strategy
In January 2005, the European Commission presented its Community Mercury Strategy, a comprehensive plan addressing mercury pollution regionally, as well as globally. In the Strategy, the European Commission proposed restrictions in the use of mercury, and an export ban of metal mercury from the EU. An important feature of the Strategy is support for and promotion of international actions, one element of which is to be reduction of global mercury supply, trade and demand.

On October 26th, 2006, the European Commission proposed legislation to ban all European Union exports of mercury from 2011. This ban was part of the Strategy. The export ban will significantly reduce global supplies and thereby reduce the emission of the heavy metal to the environment. The European Commission is promoting a global action, including the possible development of a legally binding agreement, to reduce human and environmental exposure.

The NGO's Strategy
The NGO's strategy on mercury reduction can be summarized in the five points below:
  • Work should start towards a global binding instrument on mercury, as soon as possible.
  • The findings of the trade report conducted for UNEP should be utilised and concrete actions should be taken including the following:
  • Global Mercury Demand Reduction goal of 50% by 2012 and 70% by 2017.
  • Global Mercury Supply Reduction
  • Financial Assistance
Developed countries should provide new and additional financial resources to support these activities in developing nations, and GEF should create a financial assistance mechanism to support global mercury activities consistent with the above proposals.

WWF Guianas is committed to helping those in the mining sector to reduce the risks involved in mining and improve their methods, thus minimizing the negative impacts of goldmining on human health and the environment.
	© WWF Guianas
Miners burns the amalgam and mercury vapor is released into the air.
© WWF Guianas
	© WWF Guianas
The retort causes mercury to be captured and recycled without it being released into the environment.
© WWF Guianas