Forty Years of International Mercury Policy: the 1970s (Part 1 of 3)

by Noelle Selin

While the treaty currently under negotiation will be the first global, legally-binding action to address mercury in the environment, it is certainly not the first international policy dealing with the substance. In fact, mercury has been the subject of multilateral cooperation since at least the 1970s. Here’s a summary of some of the actions way back in the disco era. Future posts will bring us through the 80s, 90s and 2000s.

Early international policies on mercury addressed contamination of regional seas such as the Baltic, the North-East Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the North American Great Lakes. Heavy metals were identified as pollutants of high concern at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. In 1973, the OECD urged its members to reduce anthropogenic releases of mercury to the environment to lowest possible levels. Other agreements from the 1970s that included reference to mercury and/or other heavy metals include:

  • International Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other Matter (London Convention), 1972
  • Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft (Oslo Convention), 1972
  • Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land-Based Sources (Paris Convention), 1973
  • Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area (Helsinki Convention)
  • Mediterranean Action Plan (1975) and Barcelona Convention (1976)
  • Convention on the Protection of the Rhine Against Chemical Pollution, 1976 [pdf]
  • Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (1972, 1978)

In addition to these agreements, the European Economic community also introduced its first mercury legislation in the 1970s. In general, mercury was treated in the 1970s as an industrial contaminant, similar to other chemical substances addressed on a national and regional basis. Stay tuned for a summary of the 1980s and 1990s, when international action on mercury grew in scale and scope.

For more information on the history of mercury policy, see the following article: N. E. Selin and H. Selin, “Global Politics of Mercury Pollution: The Need for Multi-Scale Governance,” RECIEL 15 (3) 2006. [pdf]

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About Noelle Selin

I am Assistant Professor of Engineering Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a joint appointment as Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. I am also affiliated with the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. My research focuses on using atmospheric chemistry modeling to inform decision-making strategies on air pollution, climate change and mercury pollution.

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