Forty Years of International Mercury Policy: the 1980s and 1990s (Part 2 of 3)

By: Noelle Selin

My previous post looked at early international efforts to regulate mercury from the 1970s. This post looks at developments in the 1980s and 1990s, as science and policy communities began to realize that mercury was not just a regional, industrial pollutant but a global challenge. Scientific assessments showed that despite action in the 1970s, mercury levels remained high, and by the 1990s, new evidence emerged that mercury has health effects at low-doses (we’ll cover these in an upcoming post on mercury health effects). Revisions of some of the agreements from the 1970s also set new, ambitious goals. Actions in the 1980s and 1990s included:

  • The HELCOM Ministerial Declaration in 1988 [pdf], which stated a goal (never reached) to reduce total discharges of mercury and other hazardous substances by 50% by 1995, and a series of binding recommendations targeting mercury uses and emission sources
  • The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR Convention, which updates the Oslo and Paris Conventions), 1992, with a goal of achieving natural background levels of hazardous substances by 2020
  • Further cooperation around the Mediterranean Sea included a 1995 update to the Barcelona Convention, and a 1996 Hazardous Wastes Protocol [pdf] that obligates parties to reduce and where possible eliminate the generation of hazardous wastes in the Mediterranean, including mercury waste, and a 1997 Strategic Action Programme under the Mediterranean Action Plan that sets a 2025 goal for complete phase-out of all input of mercury into the Mediterranean [pdf]
  • Mercury in hazardous wastes is covered by the Basel Convention (1989)

A major regional agreement on heavy metals (including mercury, cadmium and lead) completed in the 1990s was the Heavy Metals Protocol to the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), an agreement that covers the U.S., Canada, western and eastern Europe, and Russia. The CLRTAP heavy metals protocol, completed at the same time as another protocol on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), set a strong precedent for global action on both POPs (eventually the Stockholm Convention) as well as mercury.

In the third and final post, we’ll look at the road towards the global treaty process beginning in the 2000s.

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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