A global treaty to reduce toxic mercury in the environment has been completed and will be presented to countries for their ratification as part of a worldwide bid to control and reduce ways in which mercury is used, released or emitted.
Negotiations on the Minamata Convention on Mercury, named for the Japanese city that suffered severe mercury poisoning in the 1950s, finished in Switzerland on Saturday.
“Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva — in particular, the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic, and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come,” said Achim Steiner, United Nations undersecretary-general and executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, which facilitated the meeting of delegates from 140 member states.
The treaty says that certain mercury-added products, such as batteries, lamps, switches, skin-lightening cosmetics, pesticides and thermometers, may not be manufactured, imported or exported any later than 2020.
Mercury-added dental amalgams are also to be phased out.
However, certain mercury-added products are to be exempted from the ban, including those used for military and civil protection, products with no mercury-free alternative, products used in religious or traditional practices, and vaccines containing thimerosal, an ethylmercury preservative.
The omission of thimerosal-containing vaccines from the ban disappointed advocates who believe the preservative plays a role in sickening some children.
“Children’s health took a backseat to special interests. The only major purposeful exposure to mercury that didn’t get addressed was thimerosal,” said Eric Uram, executive director at SafeMinds, which seeks to eradicate autism and other health disorders they say are caused by mercury and man-made toxicants.
However, the use of thimerosal vaccines was supported by specialists who advise the World Health Organization, and groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Fifteen years of research “has failed to yield any evidence of significant harm” — including disorders such as autism — from using thimerosal in vaccines, Dr. Walter A. Orenstein, associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center at Emory University in Georgia, wrote Dec. 17 in the AAP journal Pediatrics.
Millions of children in the developing world depend on multidose vaccines that can be stored without refrigeration; thimerosal prevents bacteria or pathogens from growing in these vaccines, added researchers Katherine King and colleagues in Pediatrics.
“Banning thimerosal would amount to banning such multidose vaccines” that currently protect children from tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough and hepatitis B, they wrote.
The United States uses thimerosal-free vaccines, except in some flu shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mercury is highly toxic to humans and animals when inhaled or ingested, and is particularly harmful to developing brains and nervous systems in children and fetuses.
Global mercury pollution, which will be curtailed under the new treaty, occurs through emissions from mining, power plants, smelters and cement production. Mercury has entered the global food chain, especially via fish and shellfish; shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel should not be eaten because of their high mercury concentrations, the Food and Drug Administration advises.
The signing of the global mercury ban will occur in October in Minamata, where thousands of Japanese citizens suffered death and injury from eating methylmercury-contaminated seafood from their local waters. It was later discovered that a local chemical factory had released its industrial wastewater into the surrounding waterways.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at email@example.com.
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