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UN: Report On The Environment Warns Against Increasing Mercury Pollution

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says mercury pollution is on the rise. A UNEP report says mercury emissions, particularly from coal-fired power plants, spread easily and can enter into the food chain, posing serious threats to women and children. The report, presented at a world environment ministers' meeting in Nairobi, says mercury pollution must be confronted before global warming aggravates its consequences.

Prague, 5 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) warns in a new report that mercury pollution is far more widespread than previously believed. The report was released on 3 February at a UNEP conference of environment ministers currently under way in Nairobi, Kenya.

UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer told the Nairobi conference that mercury pollution has become a global threat that must be addressed by the international community. "We have a huge problem with regard to mercury. It is a huge problem with regard to human health all around the world. Mercury -- and other chemicals -- also travels without passport, goes around the world, by air, by water, and we know that people are victims of mercury who never had any contact with production of it or the consumption chain. Therefore, I believe it is a must for the global family to tackle this problem," he said.

The report says the main way to reduce global mercury poisoning is to curb pollution from power stations and waste incinerators, particularly in developing countries.

The head of UNEP's media division, Nick Nuttall, speaking from Nairobi, explained to RFE/RL the main sources of mercury emissions: "It's pretty clear from the research that the main source of new mercury emissions into the atmosphere -- and then, of course, this stuff travels around the world -- the main new sources are from power stations and waste incinerators. These things take the lion's share of the new emissions. The other sources are old mercury deposited in sediments, in lakes and rivers coming back out again because of temperature changes in lakes, particularly in northern areas -- Scandinavia, Northern Europe."

The report says coal-fired power plants and waste incinerators account for 1,500 tons, or some 70 percent, of the annual mercury emissions into the atmosphere -- more than half of it coming from developing countries in Asia.

According to the report, gold and silver mining is the second-largest source of mercury pollution, with 400 to 500 tons annually released into the air, soil, and water of an increasing number of less-developed countries. Mercury, also known as quicksilver, is mainly used in mining to separate precious metals from ore.

Miners are currently among the professional groups most likely to suffer from mercury contamination. In the past, however, mercury was also responsible for a high rate of brain damage among hat makers, who used mercury to reinforce the shape of hats -- hence the expression "as mad as a hatter." Mercury-induced brain damage can result in impaired coordination, memory loss, tremors, and blurred vision.

The UNEP document cites cement production, chlorine-alkali production, and manufacture of dental amalgams among other important sources of mercury releases.

When mercury reaches the atmosphere, it can be disseminated over thousands of kilometers, far from the places where it was originally discharged. Mercury becomes most dangerous to humans when, in contact with water, it turns into highly poisonous methyl mercury and builds up in fish and other aquatic life.

The report says numerous studies have linked brain damage in babies to mercury poisoning of their mothers as a result of eating contaminated fish. It cites a U.S. study that found up to 300,000 babies in the United States alone could be at risk of such brain damage. Globally, it says, the number could run into the millions.

The report also warns that global warming triggers the release of more mercury from contaminated sediments and soils into lakes, rivers and other freshwater. "If you have an increase in temperature, for example, also with regard to climate change, you have also a higher probability that this process [of turning mercury into methyl mercury] is going on, and you have a more intensive correlation with the problems on human health. This is why I clearly mentioned in the report, you can see it, we must make it as broad as possible. And I believe this is a good underlining that the changes of temperature, especially also in lakes and in other waters, have negative effects for the contamination with mercury," Toepfer said.

The report says that in Sweden alone, pike living in half of the country's 100,000 lakes now have mercury levels exceeding international health limits. As a result, women of childbearing age are recommended not to eat pike from Swedish lakes at all.

Acid rain, which is itself often the result of power-station pollution, may be aggravating the problem, since high levels of acidity in water appear to stimulate releases of mercury from the soil.

UNEP is saying that the report, which is currently being debated at the meeting in Nairobi, will form the basis for political decisions that will set the course for future global action on mercury.

Jim Willis, director of the UNEP Chemicals Program, which coordinated the report, explained to environment ministers in Nairobi what the main directions for action could be in order to diminish the severity of mercury contamination worldwide. "To help people to voluntarily shift to cleaner and more sustainable and cost-effective technologies, maintaining information on mercury, helping countries deal with mercury poisoning when it does arise and, indeed, it does arise, helping countries put in place the analytical capacities to know whether or not they have contaminated food and if it is contaminated, how contaminated [it is], and that sort of thing. I think there are a number of easy, inexpensive things that simply haven't been done yet and could readily be done," he said.

UNEP's Nick Nuttall said the debate on the Nairobi report, set to end on 7 February, may result either in a legally binding treaty requiring states to reduce mercury emissions or in "some kind of voluntary approach."