Phasing out mercury

The Minamata Convention takes aim at a leading cause of ill health.

Posted March 18, 2022

In Ecuador, one of the jobs women known as jancheras undertake is to classify ore discarded by small-scale mining.

PNGQ/UNDP Ecuador

With the multiple crises facing us, from rising inequality to conflict and displacement, biodiversity loss, and climate change, it can be difficult to focus on all the development challenges that need our attention.

Mercury is a case in point. Unfortunately, and for many different reasons, it is still being used in many industrial processes and consumer products. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern. Exposure to mercury can lead to kidney, heart and respiratory problems, vision or hearing problems, learning disabilities, headaches, memory problems, and emotional changes. Mercury poses a particular threat to the unborn and the young child because of its impact on the nervous system.

Phasing out mercury brings benefits not just to our health. It also contributes to poverty reduction, gender equality, environmental protection, marine and coastal biodiversity, child protection and fair labour conditions. Since March is International Women’s Month, it is especially important to highlight the gender implications of phasing out mercury. Men and women are exposed to mercury in different ways and have different biological responses to it. They also have different roles and responsibilities related to mercury use. A study of artisanal and small-scale gold mines in Migori, Kenya found that women were the primary mercury users working with no protective equipment. and that exposure to mercury was the highest among women and children.

Therefore, like climate change, mercury is both a common and a shared problem with a global impact, which is why the global Minamata Convention on Mercury was created. Entered into force in 2017, it’s the youngest global environmental treaty. It aims to reduce mercury releases from all sources, including small gold mines, coal combustion, cement production, production of non-ferrous metals, disposal of waste from mercury-containing products, and chlor-alkali plants, among many others.

UNDP is working to protect human health and the environment from the dangers of mercury. Efforts to reduce the use and release of mercury have mainly focused on the extractives sector, by supporting the phase-out of mercury used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, and on the health sector, where we support the phase-out of mercury-containing medical devices and the reduction of mercury emissions. 

As a key partner in the Global Environment Facility (GEF) funded planetGOLD programme, UNDP is making small-scale gold mining safer, cleaner, and more profitable in Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Honduras, Kenya, Indonesia, Peru and Suriname. Exciting results are already being reported. Indonesia is the third largest mercury emitter in the world due to the size of its small scale mining sector. But under the planetGOLD Indonesia project, miners at three sites have shifted to mercury-free processing plants which has led to the production of 2.23 tonnes of mercury-free gold leading to an avoidance of 11.6 tonnes mercury released per year. This will bring many environmental, social and health benefits for the people of Indonesia as well as for the rest of the world. While mercury is prohibited for small mines in Ecuador, illegal mercury use is still estimated at 30 tonnes per year.

The National Chemicals Programme, which is a partner initiative of planetGOLD, has reduced the use of mercury by one tonne per year. Moreover, an innovative strategy will allow existing processing plants to purchase and process raw ore from artisanal miners without using mercury. This strategy could become public policy and result in a more efficient and economically better future for artisanal miners. In this way, mercury will be completely eradicated from the sector. Finally, as part of the Reducing unintentional POPS and mercury releases from the health sector in Africa project, UNDP, in cooperation with WHO and Healthcare Without Harm introduced advanced healthcare waste management systems in Ghana, Madagascar, Tanzania, and Zambia. In total, 5,441 digital thermometers and 1,859 sphygmomanometers were provided to 80 healthcare facilities leading to reductions in mercury releases of 71.5 kilograms. With the project support, more than 60 health centres in these countries became mercury-free facilities in terms of medical devices. Safe storage sites for mercury containing medical devices were established in Madagascar and Zambia. 

The next meeting of the Minamata Convention takes place in Bali on 21-25 March 2022. As the first in-person meeting after two years, being hosted by a developing country for the first time, and as a milestone in the Minamata journey, we believe this provides an exciting opportunity to focus attention on the far-reaching benefits that the successful implementation of this convention will achieve. Countries are also expected to adopt the non-binding Bali Declaration, which aims to strengthen international cooperation and collaboration to combat the illegal trade of mercury.