Category Archives: Amanda Giang

Mercury NOMADSS travel to Smyrna, TN!

Greetings from sunny Smyrna, TN, where for the last few weeks we (Noelle Selin, Amanda Giang and Shaojie Song) have been participating in a mission to measure mercury and other pollutants in the atmosphere. NOMADSS is the title of the airplane-based campaign, which stands for “Nitrogen, Oxidants, Mercury and Aerosol Distributions, Sources and Sinks.” It’s part of the larger Southeast Atmosphere study that’s investigating air quality in the southeast U.S. this summer. We are using our models to predict where we’re likely to find pollution, and to interpret data from the last several days to guide planning.

If you’re interested in following all of the science going on this summer, check out the Southeast Atmosphere Study home page, follow @SAS_Operations on twitter. There’s also a great blog on another component of the Southeast Atmosphere Study, the Southern Oxidant and Aerosol Study. Stay tuned for further updates from the field!

For mercury-specific updates, stay tuned to #MITMercury.


How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps (Part 4): Institutions and implementation in the Final Treaty

By: Amanda Giang and Philip Wolfe

Many moons ago, before the negotiations began, we set up some key questions about how a treaty actually works in this post. We called these questions the implementation problem: how does a treaty actually get implemented? How do we make sure that countries are actually following its provisions? How do we make sure the provisions are effective? And what does all this mean for the relationship between countries, between treaties, and between different international bodies?

Now that the negotiation is over, we can try to answer these questions for the newly minted Minimata Convention.

1.     How will the convention be implemented in practice?

While the Minimata Convention was adopted last Saturday, it won’t be officially open for signature until October, in Kumamato, Japan. Once a country has signed the convention, they will have to begin the domestic ratification process, which involves putting in place legislation that implements the treaty’s provisions.* When fifty countries have ratified the treaty, it enters into force, which means that it becomes binding by international law.While countries prepare for implementation, they will have option of preparing National Implementation Plans (NIPs). This flexible approach to implementation plans was a compromise between mostly developed countries, who pointed out that NIPs are expensive and burdensome, and mostly developing countries, who were seeking financial and technical support to better understand how to implement the treaty requirements.

* If a country does not sign the convention within a one-year period, but then would like to join, it accedes to the treaty.

2 + 3.     How can the convention ensure compliance and effectiveness? 

During the negotiation, one delegate said, “Reporting is the backbone of compliance,” referring to the importance of transparency and information exchange as a crucial incentive for following through on promises. Provisions for reporting and information sharing did not change drastically between the draft text and the finalized treaty. Reporting related to specific articles, such as supply and trade, products and processes, emissions and releases, waste and storage, and ASGM, are mandatory. Countries are also asked to “facilitate” other information sharing activities, like diffusing economically and technically feasible mercury-free alternatives to products and processes.

As many delegates noted, even if parties are complying to the treaty’s requirements, there is no guarantee that these requirements will translate into the desired objective of the treaty—to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury. If everyone is in compliance, but the objective is not met, the requirements of the treaty may need to be changed. Monitoring and modelling concentrations of mercury in the environment, in biota, and in particularly vulnerable or at-risk human populations is therefore a cornerstone of evaluating effectiveness. The treaty encourages parties to cooperate on these monitoring and modelling activities, but does not mandate it. A serious remaining question then, that may be addressed in the first Conference of Parties, is whether and how much funding will be provided for these activities.

4.  How will this treaty interface with other international agreements and bodies?

The final treaty text deals with relationships to other international agreements and bodies in the preamble. The preamble recognizes that the Minimata Convention does not create a hierarchy between other international agreements, and that treaties and international bodies concerned with environment and health are mutually supportive—particularly the World Health Organization, and the Basel and Rotterdam Conventions. The preamble also makes special mention of the Rio+20 reaffirmation of the Rio Principles, with special emphasis on common but differentiated responsibilities.

During the negotiations, there was a heated debate over whether or not there should be a dedicated article for health aspects. Many countries felt that including such a section—which would focus on identifying, monitoring, providing information to, and treating adversely affected and vulnerable communities—would be out of scope and redundant given the mandate and expertise of the World Health Organization and International Labour Organization. In the end, this article was included in the text to reflect one of the key objectives of the treaty—to protect human health. However, this article recognizes the role of the WHO and ILO and calls for increased cooperation with these bodies. The article also does not require that parties undertake these health-promoting activities for affected and vulnerable populations, or set aside funding for these activities. Instead it asks that parties promote these activities.

5. How will this convention appropriately address individual parties’ conceptions of sovereignty?

These international negotiations can be thought of as a two-level game: each country is simultaneously thinking of the global sphere and its own domestic position. As such, countries are willing to sign on to the treaty if it is somehow in both its self-interest and the interest of the international community. When it came to defining a “mercury compound” in the treaty, a tension developed as countries reached for a definition that would be relevant to curbing deleterious mercury emissions and releases, but would still be broad enough as to not constrict domestic regulators. For instance, if naturally occurring trace amounts of mercury containing compounds occur in the soil of a given country, would the country be required to regulate its own topsoil? If some countries have difficulty ratifying treaties that require prior informed consent of trade, should this treaty not include prior informed consent requirements just so those countries can be party to it even if it leads to a weaker overall treaty? If this convention is able to phase-out all primary mining of mercury, will it set a precedent that could lead to the phase-out of other forms of mining in the future?

While we’ve seen some of these debates resolved, the true test of this question will come as individual parties move to sign and ratify the treaty.

Five things I learned at INC5 (from Amanda)

By: Amanda Giang 

  1. I can single-handedly eat a litre of cheese if it is in fondue form.
  2. Negotiators are acting on behalf of their countries (or regional economic groups), but their success has as much to do with their own personalities as it does with their country’s position. It was really fascinating (not to mention impressive) to see how different individuals used facts, rhetoric, empathy, or in some cases, rapier wit, to broker consensus. To use a phrase coined by Rebecca Saari, I may have developed some “diplomacy crushes” over the course of the week.
  3. Is an environmental treaty ever just an environmental treaty? Issues of environment, health, and trade are so incredibly intertwined. As delegates tried to disentangle these different threads, and to figure out what the scope of an environmental treaty should be, I began to question whether or not our current international governance systems are really able to address the holistic global problems—be they global poverty, hazardous chemicals, biodiversity loss, or climate change—that we’re facing. I think there’s a role for academia to play here—as researchers, we need to better understand and communicate the integrated nature of these problems, and work from an interdisciplinary perspective. Scientists we met at INC5 like Dr. Celia Chen and Dr. David Evers serve as great models for this kind of work.
  4. Should the focus of an international environmental treaty be prevention and mitigation, or should it also address affected communities, and adaptation to existing problems? This is a question that has come up in the debate over climate change, and it also reared its head at the mercury negotiations, particularly in the discussion on a dedicated section on the health aspects of the mercury problem. I thought the final treaty text for this section, which encouraged promotion of activities to identify, treat, and care for affected communities, was a precedent setting first step towards answering this question.
  5. Thanks to Swiss hospitality (which included a fantastic Heidi-themed “Swiss Break”) and some dedicated sleuthing on the part of Phillip Wolfe, I know now that there are over ten film and television productions of Heidi, including an anime series, and a feature length adaptation with dogs playing all the major roles.

Thanks for reading and following us! If I can sneak in a sixth thing I learned, it’s that sharing this experience, and connecting with others involved in science outreach, has been a fantastic one in its own right.


Scientist on the Scene: A Profile of Dr. Celia Chen

Celia Chenby Amanda Giang

We’re certainly not the only science-folk at INC5. Over the course of the week, we’ve had the opportunity to meet many others who are here to support the negotiation in one way or another. Between sessions, I had the chance to catch up with one of them, Dr. Celia Chen, to find out a little more about why she’s here at the negotiations and what advice she has for us aspiring science-policy wonks.

Celia works in the Department of Biology at Dartmouth College, as part of the Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. The program, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), looks at how mercury and arsenic in the environment affect ecosystem and human health. Within the program, she spends her time “wearing two different hats,” she says, one as a traditional eco-toxicologist and principal investigator for a project on the fate of metals in aquatic food webs, and a second as the principal investigator of research translation. “Translation is part of the mandate NIEHS gives for Superfund research,” Celia explains. Not only are researchers within these programs expected to clarify the science of contamination, but they’re also expected to make sure that their findings are communicated—or translated—to stakeholders (i.e., the people who can use or are directly affected by the findings), be they regulators from the EPA and FDA, or local food cooperatives.

She sees this research translation as a crucial role that scientists must play in policy-making forums. “We need to take what we know about the science and put it in a language that is accessible to policy makers,” she argues. Too often, critical scientific knowledge remains locked up in scientific publications, which, while they are the bread-and-butter of professional research, don’t always penetrate into policy circles. Celia feels that it is the responsibility of scientists to put their work in a form that resonates with—and is useful to—those in decision-making positions, from consumers making choices about their personal fish consumption, to negotiators working at an international scale. In fact, that’s why she’s attending the mercury negotiations. In 2010, the Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program created the Coastal and Marine Mercury Ecosystem Research Collaborative (C-MERC) to synthesize current knowledge on the environmental health impacts of mercury in a policy relevant way. Celia is attending INC5 to share the results of this project: the Sources to Seafood report.

“We tried to ask stakeholders first what they needed to know,” describes Celia. “The timing of [the Sources to Seafood report] was on purpose.”

Sources to Seafood was published on the tail of a domestic regulation in the US for mercury from coal-fired power plants, and directly before the final negotiating session for a global treaty on mercury. A key question that policy makers for both domestic and international regulation want clarified is how controlling different sources of mercury emissions and releases will actually affect human exposure. This question is important for both designing new policy and evaluating existing ones.

“When we began this work, most of the research done on mercury in the environment was done in freshwater systems, not marine. But most people are exposed to methylmercury through marine seafood,” Chen says. The report estimates that, for most of the US population, 85% of methylmercury exposure comes from marine fish. What are the sources of mercury that affect different marine and estuarine—that is, ocean and coastal—systems, from which fish are harvested? How do these sources affect human exposure? Researchers in biogeochemistry, food web dynamics, and health were all trying to answer different parts of these questions, but these different threads weren’t being woven together into a comprehensive picture.

“The most novel part of [the Sources to Seafood report],” Celia argues, is its interdisciplinary and cross-scale approach. “There are still many gaps and not enough data,” she says, but by synthesizing many different studies from different fields, a few conclusions can be drawn.

The most important point from the Sources to Seafood report that needs to be conveyed to decision-makers, Celia highlights, is that for each ocean system, critical sources of mercury may be different—some systems are most affected by atmospheric deposition, while others are most affected by inputs from rivers. Will the draft text on emissions and releases reflect these nuances? Celia hopes that reports like Sources to Seafood might help ensure that it does.

As for students interested in marine science-policy, Celia recommends that they consider the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowships, which match students with “host” policy makers in the executive and legislative branches of the US government in Washington D.C. These fellowships are open to any student, regardless of citizenship, enrolled in a graduate program at a US university that has a Sea Grant program.

For those interested in how the final treaty shapes up, keep following developments here on our blog and via twitter @amandagiang and @MITmercury.

What to Expect from INC5 Day 5 – Thursday, January 17

By: Amanda Giang

The agenda for Day 5.

The agenda for Day 5.

It’s Day 5 of the negotiations, and the atmosphere is getting tense. Chair Lugris is pushing for some serious progress, and is expecting contact groups to produce some text by the end of day, so that tomorrow can be devoted to fine-tuning. We’re not even going to have a swiss break! We expect that plenary will be suspended early while contact groups tackle the following:


  • A financial mechanism for the convention. The Chair has delayed this important discussion until now, but it’s time to finally iron out exactly how the activities described in the draft treaty are going to be paid for. Looking to be a late night for @alicealpert and @jvanderhoop, who will be covering this issue.
  • Linkages between this treaty and others, and how implementation and compliance will be operationalized, covered by @wolfeyp and @amandagiang.
  • Text for how to address health in the treaty, also covered by @amandagiang and @wolfepy.
  • Finalization of technical issues, like ASGM, supply and trade of mercury (including primary mining), followed by @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore.
  • Dental amalgam—which is a particularly contentious section of the text on mercury products and processes, covered by @Bea_Edwards and @lncz.
  • Draft text for emissions and releases, with fleshing out of Annexes specifying sources and limits, followed by @NoelleSelin, @BeckySaari and @leahstokes
  • If we’re lucky, pizza! We hear our generous Swiss hosts provided some late night study negotiation snacks yesterday. As graduate students, we know nothing fuels brainpower like greasy cheese and carbs.

Don’t forget to follow @MITmercury and #MITmercury to follow the action real-time!

How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps
 (Part 3): A Simple Dictionary for Complex Concepts

by Amanda Giang and Philip Wolfe

Amanda and Philip here with a handy guide to navigating the world of intergovernmental negotiations. In Part 2, we looked at the problem of treaty implementation. In Part 3 we define some key concepts and themes when it comes to institutions and implementation.

While most of the documents for INC5 are in English, it can sometimes feel like they are written in an arcane, impenetrable language. It would take an entire dictionary (or at least a decent glossary) to really unravel all of the words and acronyms of the mercury negotiations. Here, to at least get you started, we are going to highlight four terms that will come in handy when thinking about global institutions and treaty implementation.

Bureaucratic politics

Is policy making really just well informed rational parties figuring out what’s best for the common good, or is there also an aspect of it that’s a little less… altruistic? Graham Allison, an influential political scientist, argued that policy decisions are also shaped by power struggles between different actors within a bureaucracy. These actors have different bureaucratic interests, and want to extend their influence where possible. You might not see the term “bureaucratic politics” often in official documents or hear it in floor discussion, but its important to know that it’s a strong undercurrent to the whole proceedings.

How might bureaucratic politics show up in the mercury treaty negotiations? First, there’s a question of who should be (and has the authority to be) responsible for what. For example, can the mercury treaty address health aspects explicitly (Article 20 b, up for consideration), or should this solely be the purview of the World Health Organization? The US, the EU, and Canada have taken a stance against explicitly including health concerns in the treaty, while broadly supporting global health in other domains. Some human rights groups have attacked this position as being more about bureaucratic politics than reasonable decision making in the world’s best interest.

At the level of the treaty itself, how are responsibilities going to be divided amongst committees and subsidiary bodies? What committees are needed (e.g., implementation, compliance, scientific assessment)? Who gets to sit on these committees? The answers to these questions may be as much about bureaucratic politics as they are about mercury pollution.

Common but differentiated responsibilities

In 1992, the UN held a Conference on Environment and Development (often called the Earth Summit), and established a set of 27 principles to guide sustainable global development—the Rio Declaration. One of these principles refers to nations’ common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR). This phrase has since become a standard part of many environmental treaties and, despite being very compact, it packs a mean punch in terms of political and equity implications. CBDR acknowledges that, while working towards common environmental goals, different parties have different responsibilities for two reasons:

1.     Different states have had different contributions to global environmental degradation. Developed countries have typically, over time, contributed more to environmental degradation than less developed nations as a result of their historical development trajectories and current consumption patterns.

2.     Developed countries command significant financial and technical resources (sometimes due to environmentally exploitative development trajectories).

The Precautionary Principle

Another legacy of the Earth Summit is the Precautionary Principle. The Rio Declaration, principle 15, states: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” Since the Earth Summit, the principle has been invoked in many regulatory contexts for both environmental and health reasons, often with slightly different definitions. At its heart though, the principle shifts the burden of proof: those who want to take preventative action don’t need to definitively prove harm. Instead, the burden falls on those conducting potentially environmentally or health threatening activities to prove that their actions are benign.

An interesting procedural note: the Preamble of the text of the mercury treaty regulation has yet to be formally discussed. Currently in the draft text, there is a suggestion for including a reaffirmation of the Precautionary Principle from the Rio Declaration, but there’s no indication of how that reaffirmation could be written.


Transparency may be the easiest concept on our list to define, but its no less complex or important in implementing a global regulatory instrument. Transparency is the openness, communication extent, and accountability of signatory states. Transparency promotes regulatory compliance because it allows for coordination between parties, it provides reassurance to certain parties that other parties are following through on their responsibilities, and it disincentives actors from considering non-compliance. The UN highlights the importance of transparency with respect to success of achieving good global governance.

Transparency is a crucial part of the mercury negotiations, especially with respect to reporting and monitoring emissions. One of the issues that remains to be settled is the level of transparency built into the treaty regarding trade. Because some parties involved in the mercury negotiations have ratified the Basel Convention and others have not, trade is likely to be especially tricky to reach agreement on.

Now you’re armed with a couple key terms that, we hope, will help you make sense of the current mercury negotiations. Put this knowledge to work by following our blog and Twitter (@MITMercury) as we track the developments of the INC5.

Benefit estimates and other health effects from mercury

By: Amanda Giang

When I’m not in glamorous Geneva, and instead in my much-less-glamorous cubicle in Cambridge, MA, I work on assessing the benefits of reducing mercury emissions. The bulk of these benefits are related to improved health—reviewed in our earlier post. Discussion on the health impacts of mercury normally focus on neurologic effects—and with good reason. These effects often have devastating impacts on the lives of victims, and heavy social and economic costs—even when we’re talking about subtle IQ loss from fetal exposure to methylmercury.

What’s more, we have a large body of scientific evidence that helps us understand these neurologic effects, and that can help guide policy decisions about preventing them. But, focusing on just neurologic effects may not tell the whole story. There may be other—though considerably more uncertain—health effects from mercury exposure that have serious policy implications. A large part of my research is about how to include these uncertain health effects in estimating benefits from reduced mercury emissions.

Of these uncertain effects, cardiovascular impacts may be the most important, and also the least uncertain. A growing body of evidence suggests that there may be a causal relationship between methylmercury and cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease, heart attacks, increased blood pressure). Scientists still aren’t sure why mercury might promote heart attacks; one hypothesis is that it causes oxidative damage.

A committee convened by the US EPA recently decided that there was enough evidence, at least for heart attacks, to warrant including this health effect in future benefit assessments for mercury regulation.* Taking into account mercury-related heart attacks is important because the “cost” of a heart attack—personal, social, and economic—is very high; particularly if a heart attack leads to a fatality. In one of the first studies to include heart attacks in its calculations of costs and benefits, 80% of the benefits associated with reduced mercury exposure ($8.6 billion/year in the US) were due to reduced heart attacks.

If, through further research, it turns out there is a causal relationship between mercury and heart disease, then this week’s mercury treaty might be even more socially beneficial than countries initially thought. This was the case when the US regulated sulfur dioxide in the 1990s. Originally, the focus during the policy’s development was on environmental benefits from reduced acid rain. However, it later emerged that reducing sulfur dioxide has huge health benefits (an unexpected $70 billion/year!). As the science develops, we’ll see whether this will play out for mercury as well.

* NOTE: In the US, part of the regulation making process involves assessing the costs and benefits of regulation.

Mercury’s Health Effects

by Alice Alpert, Ellen Czaika, and Amanda Giang

Pathways to exposure

Although these negotiations are explicitly focused on creating an environmental treaty, mercury’s major significance is its toxicity to humans. When you think about mercury, you probably picture a mercury thermometer. In a thermometer, you can literally see the silvery mercury in its bulb – this is liquid, elemental mercury. If you are absent minded and accidentally drop that mercury thermometer on the bathroom floor, the mercury will spills and form into beads. Although it’s not a good idea to touch this mercury, it is also not easily absorbed by the digestive system in this form.

The more pernicious way for this mercury to enter your body is if it vaporizes, which happens to a small amount of the liquid mercury at room temperature. If you inhale the vapor it can easily pass from your lungs into your blood stream and damage tissues. In fact, vacuuming up the spilled mercury can increase its vaporization and therefore the danger.

In truth, most people will not be exposed to mercury in this form. Instead, people working in chlor-alkali production, mercury mining and refining, thermometer production, dentistry, and in the production of mercury-based chemicals are at increased risk. Although measures have been taken to limit occupational exposure to mercury, many workers may continue to be at risk. Similarly, artisanal or small-scale gold miners are routinely exposed to mercury vapor at very high levels, in the process of burning the mercury-gold amalgam used to extract gold from ore. Indeed, miners and their communities often exhibit clear signs of mercury poisoning.

Another important pathway for mercury exposure is through eating seafood. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) (Section 2.4, paragraph 128), for many people this is the main pathway for human exposure to methylmercury. Exposure happens through the process of bioaccumulation and biomagnification. In brief, mercury is methylated to methylmercury (CH3HgX) by bacteria in the ocean and then accumulates in fish and marine mammals. Long-lived predatory fish at the top of the food-chain, such as swordfish, tilefish, shark, and tuna, can accumulate dangerously high concentrations of mercury. The US EPA lists guidelines for safe consumption of fish. Women who are pregnant or who could become pregnant should be especially careful about eating mercury contaminated fish because the mercury can be harmful to the developing fetus.

In addition, exposure could happen through dental amalgams. Elemental mercury is used in dental amalgam, and it can be ingested or its vapors can be inhaled. This is a contentious issue in the negotiations. The American Dental Association and the US Environmental Protection Agency state that mercury in dental amalgam is safe, while a report by the WHO (p.11) states that dental amalgam is a significant source of mercury exposure in those who have mercury fillings. We encourage you to look into the reports if you are concerned about this issue. For a solid overview of all pathways, see the WHO report on mercury exposure.

How and why does mercury make us so sick?

The most serious effects of elemental mercury vapor concern the nervous system, including tremors, erethism (a neurological disorder characterized by irritability and shyness), insomnia, muscle weakness, and memory loss. At especially high concentrations, the kidneys, thyroid, and pulmonary system can be affected. Similarly to elemental mercury, mercury in its organic form, methylmercury, has serious neurological effects, including neurobehavioral deficits, neuronal loss, loss of muscle movement, hearing loss, paralysis, and death.

Why is mercury so toxic for the nervous system? There are two specific processes: first, elemental mercury and methylmercury can easily cross the blood-brain barrier and once in the brain, can be oxidized to the mercuric ion (Hg2+), which cannot cross back across the barrier. Instead, mercury is trapped in the brain, where the second process begins, neurotoxin by excitotoxicity. What? Okay, we’ll slow down and explain these multi-syllabic words: in studies of rats, Hg2+ inhibits glutamine and glutamate transport, causing receptors for these molecules to become overexcited. This causes a large influx of the calcium ion into the cell, which activates enzymes that can lead to the neuron’s death, and thus the serious neurological effects. This second process is the reason why mercury is so toxic.

Mercury crucially effects developing fetuses. In the same way that methylmercury can cross the blood-brain barrier, it can also pass through the placenta from a mother to her fetus and then to the developing fetus’ brain. As a neurotoxin, methylmercury can also damage its nervous system, and in fact mercury has lasting negative effects when fetuses are exposed to concentrations at levels that are only 10%-20% of toxic levels for adults.

Babies born to women who consumed significant amounts of methylmercury while pregnant display symptoms similar to cerebral palsy, including delayed walking and talking, altered muscle tone and reflexes. Tragically, these impairments are permanent and affected will suffer from these impairments for their entire life. In fact, recently published research estimates that IQ reductions due to chronic, low-level fetal mercury neurotoxicity costs the European Union alone € 8-9 billion euros per year. Clearly, there are significant social and economic impacts from mercury exposure, particularly for the young.

Global Environmental Governance – Where Does Mercury Fit?

by Amanda Giang

The world of global environmental agreements is starting to fill up. Over the past 50 years, the international community has come together to put in place 500 treaties over 1100 treaties—or multi-lateral environmental agreements (MEAs) in policy-wonk speak—that address the atmosphere, oceans and water, land, chemicals, hazardous substances and waste, and biodiversity.  (Whether they’ve been effective is another question.)

So where will the mercury treaty fit amongst its MEA brethren? What gaps does it fill, and how does it link with other treaties?

Standing alone

In a previous post, Philip Wolfe and I described why mercury requires an international treaty in the first place—it’s a global threat that doesn’t follow geopolitical borders, and therefore addressing it requires international cooperation. But what form should this treaty take? Some of the best known MEAs, like those that address climate change and ozone depleting substances, follow a convention-protocol structure. These agreements start with a framework convention, which basically says, “We think this is a global issue and want to address it,” and are then followed by protocols, which outline how lofty policy goals might actually be achieved through practical steps (e.g., the Kyoto protocol set up targets and timetables for carbon dioxide emissions reductions). The framework convention serves as an umbrella, and guides all the protocols that sit below it. In contrast, the mercury treaty is going to be freestanding. Because it does not sit under a guiding framework, there is not necessarily anything that dictates how it should relate to other MEAs. Since the relationship between individual MEAs is independent and non-hierarchical, no treaty supersedes another. So how should issue overlaps be managed?

This question is particularly important for the mercury treaty and how it relates to the existing set of treaties that address hazardous chemicals (or the chemicals regime, if you want to be fancy) because many chemical regime treaties are “issue-centric”, whereas the mercury treaty will be “chemical-centric”. For example, the chemicals regime includes: the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (which regulates hazardous waste) and the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (which regulates the trade of hazardous substances). How will mercury-specific waste provisions fit with those set out in the Basel Convention? To what extent can the existing machinery of these other treaties (like research centres on hazardous waste) be used for mercury-specific issues? What happens if there are countries that will be party to the mercury treaty, but are not party to the Basel Convention (for instance the US)? Similar questions apply for trade. These are some key institutional issues that will have to be resolved this week during negotiation.

Cross-cutting themes and policy legacy

As Philip and I mentioned in a previous post, with every MEA, there is the potential for policy legacy. Any decision you make about an issue that cuts across multiple regulatory regimes may set a (dangerous?) precedent, so delegates tend to tread lightly when it comes to the following issues:

  • Common but differentiated responsibilities: All parties may be willing to contribute to solving the mercury problem, but not all parties are equally responsible for causing it, nor are they equally able to address it (in terms of financial and technical resources). How should the responsibilities be divided? The Kyoto Protocol under the Framework Convention for Climate Change established one way to think about this—with Annex I countries (mostly industrialized) subject to targets and timetables, and other countries not—but there are many critics to this approach. Will the mercury treaty take a different slice at emissions reduction?
  • Financial and technical assistance: Check out this post for a detailed discussion on this issue.

As the week progresses, we’ll report on how some of these institutional linkages and cross-cutting issues solidify in the treaty text. In the meantime, if you’re just dying to learn more about the exciting world of environmental governance, check out this book: Global Governance of Hazardous Chemicals: Challenges of Multilevel Management by Henrik Selin (MIT Press, 2010).


Measuring Our Mercury Exposure Through Hair Samples

By: Leah Stokes & Noelle Selin

Mercury is a toxin that harms human health. People become exposed to mercury primarily by eating fish. In some communities, where artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) occurs, exposure can be quite high. This is because people may breathe in mercury fumes from the process.

It is possible to tell how much mercury a person has been exposed to by testing their hair, blood and urine. Estimating mercury exposure through hair samples is primarily a measure of methylmercury — the most toxic form of mercury. But, it may also be influenced by the hair surface’s exposure to emissions. For example, if a person using mercury to capture gold stands over the amalgam (the mixture of mercury and gold) while they are burning off the mercury, it is likely that some of this mercury could end up on their hair.

At INC2, the second round of the mercury treaty negotiations in Chiba, Japan in early 2011, delegates and observers were able to measure the mercury concentration in their hair. We both sent in samples, and found out that Noelle had a concentration of 1.39 ppm while Leah had a concentration of 0.75 ppm. These values are close to, or below the WHO and the US EPA guidance values for mercury in hair: 1.8 ppm and 1.2 ppm respectively.* Many other delegates at the negotiations had mercury concentrations around 4.00 ppm, which is above these guidance values. For most people, mercury concentrations in hair reflect fish consumption, and Leah is mostly a vegetarian, while Noelle is from New England and loves fish.

Chart complied from Arnika data by Amanda Giang and Julie van der Hoop.

Chart complied by Amanda Giang and Julie van der Hoop using self-reported data on Arnika’s website.

Arnika, a Czech non-governmental organization (NGO), and a member of both International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) and Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG), has posted a website where people around the world are reporting the mercury concentrations in their hair. These individuals then reflect on this information in light of the current negotiations, sending a message to delegates.

Amanda Giang and Julie van der Hoop compiled the self-reported data from Arnika’s website, to give you a sense of how mercury concentrations in hair can vary across countries.

* Note: The WHO and EPA actually give their recommendations in terms of daily oral intake of methylmercury. Amanda Giang converted these values to hair mercury concentrations using conversion factors developed by Rice et al. (2010), Stern (2005), and Allen et al. (2007).