GENEVA Experts from around the globe
gathered here Monday to look at ways of reducing the health
problems and environmental damage caused by mercury.
"We need to make mercury poisoning a thing of the
past," said Klaus Toepfer, head of the U.N. Environment
Program, which is organizing the weeklong meeting of
The dangers of mercury poisoning came to the fore
in the 1960s and 1970s when at least 2,265 people were
poisoned in Japan after eating fish from Minamata Bay,
where a chemical maker had been dumping mercury since
Although there have been no more instances of mass
poisoning, problems persist. Chronic, low-level exposure
to mercury is known to cause permanent damage to the
brain, nervous system, and kidneys. Pregnant mothers
and unborn children are particularly at risk.
"Mercury never breaks down in the environment. It
is a basic element and it will always persist," said
Jim Willis, UNEP chemicals director. "Slowly but surely
we have come to have a potentially significant global
problem associated with mercury."
Mercury is a heavy metal that has been widely used
in thermometers, dental fillings, fluorescent lamps,
and other electrical equipment. Once released into the
environment, it can travel thousands of miles (kilometers),
contaminating soil, water systems, and the atmosphere,
gathering in greater concentrations in cold areas such
as the Arctic, Antarctic, and mountain ranges.
Although it is released naturally from rocks, soil,
and volcanoes, up to three-quarters of emissions are
believed to come from human activities, primarily burning
coal in power stations, factories, and homes. Broken
thermometers that are thrown out with household trash
and some forms of gold mining also lead to mercury pollution.
Most people are exposed through eating fish, leading
some governments to issue guidelines on the safe level
of fish consumption.
However, workers in industries that use mercury and
their families are at increased risk. The substance
also is used in certain rituals, such as by followers
of the Santeria religion who sprinkle mercury around
Many governments already have regulations to control
mercury emissions, and several have succeeded in reducing
emissions by as much as 75 percent in the past 10 to
The experts' report will be considered by environment
ministers at a meeting of UNEP's Governing Council next
February in Nairobi, Kenya. That could lead to the start
of formal negotiations on an international treaty, though
not all governments are in favor of such moves.
"All governments are concerned about mercury and want
the right policy response, but some of them may be concerned
about whether the treaty option is premature," Willis