UN urges world to tackle mercury health threat

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NAIROBI (AFP) – The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on Sunday urged environment ministers meeting this week in Nairobi to adopt a strategy to curb the use of the highly toxic metal mercury.

“The world’s environment ministers meeting in Nairobi, Kenya this week can take a landmark decision to lift a global health threat from the lives of hundreds of millions of people,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a statement.

More than 100 environment ministers from around the world are due to gather in Nairobi on February 16-20 for UNEP’s annual governing council meeting.

Mercury is a heavy metal whose highly toxic compounds — propagated notably by the production of coal, certain kinds of plastics and improper disposal of fluorescent light bulbs — poison millions of people worldwide.

Fish-eating is the first source of exposure among humans. The effects of mercury ingestion include damage to the brain, kidney and lungs.

Steiner said a policy framework drafted after seven years of extensive research would be submitted to the ministers.

“It covers reducing demand in products and processes — such as high intensity discharge vehicle lamps and the chlor-alkali industry — and mercury in international trade,” he said.

“Other elements include reducing emissions to the atmosphere and cleaning contaminated sites,” Steiner added.

Of the around 6,000 tonnes of mercury entering the environment annually, some 2,000 tonnes comes from power stations and coal fires in homes, he said.

“In the atmosphere or released down river systems, the toxin can travel hundreds and thousands of miles,” the statement said.

As climate change melts the Arctic, mercury trapped in the ice and sediments is being re-released back into the oceans and into the food chain, UNEP said.

The statement said that UNEP and governments had identified a wide range of products and processes offering cost-effective and safe alternatives.

“A clear and unequivocal vision of a low mercury future needs to be set. This will trigger innovation and an ever greater array of cost effective alternatives,” Steiner said.

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