Tag Archives: ASGM

Supply and Trade, Waste, and ASGM in the Final Agreement

by Mark Staples and Danya Rumore

During INC5, we were responsible for the interconnected issues of mercury supply and trade (Article 3), waste (Article 13), and artisanal and small-scale gold mining, or ASGM (Article 9). These articles were introduced in plenary early on and, given disagreement about the text, were quickly sent to the contact group on selected technical articles for revision. It took until mid-afternoon on Friday for the contact group to reach resolution on these topics, but an agreement was reached. Here is a summary of how these issues evolved over the course of the week and an overview of what made it into the agreed-upon treaty text.

Supply, Trade, and Waste

In our previous issue overview blogs on mercury supply and trade and waste, we anticipated that discussions on these issues would focus on 1) whether and how to regulate primary mercury mining operations; 2) the identification of existing stocks of mercury and mercury compound; and 3) the integration of concepts from the Basel Convention and Rotterdam Convention into the mercury treaty.

In terms of primary mercury mining, the biggest breakthrough of the negotiations was an agreement to phase-out existing primary mercury mining operations within 15 years of treaty ratification, despite initial stiff opposition from China, a nation that is currently home to significant mercury mining. Additionally, a ban on new primary mercury mining was agreed upon. Some countries with mercury deposits but no existing primary mining operations requested financial compensation for foregone resource development resulting from the ban on new mining. Thankfully, the contact group Co-Chair, Donald Hannah, helped avoid this potential sticking point by making clear that discussion of such compensation was beyond the scope of the technical working group. Importantly, the ban on new mining and phase-out existing mining will help prevent the continued release of mercury from lithosphere into the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and soil.

It was agreed upon at INC4 that all parties must quantify secondary sources of mercury and mercury compounds by taking inventory of “stocks” and “supply-generating stocks”. However, the thresholds sizes for the accounting of these sources were not defined in the draft treaty text put together by the Chair, and we expected that this would be a point of contention during the final negotiations. Surprisingly, the contact group quickly settled upon thresholds of 50 metric tons for individual stocks and 10 metric tons per year of supply-generating stocks. While the question of threshold sizes was easily resolved, the question of whether mercury compounds should be included in the clauses of article 3 was the source of much debate. Resistance came primarily from the American delegates, who did not want mercury compounds to be included. However, after much debate, it was decided that mercury compounds will be included.

Discussion around supply, trade, and waste also focused on whether and how to include a “Prior Informed Consent” (PIC) mechanism, similar to that included in the Rotterdam Convention, for mercury import and export. From the contact group discussions, it was clear that PIC is important to developing nations, especially those from the African Group and Group of Latin America and Caribbean Countries (GRULAC). In the end, the contact group agreed upon a PIC mechanism that allows states to submit standing consent, indicating PIC of all mercury imports until further notice, to the Secretariat. This compromise is designed to stem the flow of illicit or unwanted mercury trade while, at the same time, minimizing the administrative burden of PIC.

Finally, Article 12 of the agreed upon treaty text mandates that the trans-boundary movements of mercury waste must comply with the terms of the Basel Convention.

Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining

UNEP’s Global Mercury Assessment 2013 indicates that ASGM is now the largest source of anthropogenic mercury emissions. As such, we expected significant negotiation over whether and how to regulate the import and export of mercury for ASGM, and possibly some discussion over the eventual phase-out of ASGM.

However, ASGM is a particularly difficult issue to address in a multi-lateral setting like INC5. Beyond the environmental issues, which are both local and global in nature, ASGM is tied to the economic interests of many developing nations. As a result, there are serious trade-offs between the social and economic benefits and the health and environmental impacts of ASGM, and these trade-offs need to be considered when making an ASGM policy.

At INC5, Article 9 on ASGM was discussed but was not altered dramatically from the Chair’s proposed text. No special restrictions were placed on the use of imported mercury for ASGM, and no phase-out date was included in the draft treaty text. The only significant change to the Chair’s proposed text was the addition of some relatively weak wording in Annex E (which concerns national action plan requirements for ASGM) indicating that nations must develop “strategies for managing trade and preventing diversion of mercury” for ASGM.


Although supply, trade, waste, and ASGM are seemingly separate issues, it worked surprisingly well for a single contact group to work toward agreement on these topics along with issues related to products and processes. By discussing all of these concerns in detail in the same forum, delegates were able to trade across issues to develop a text that, in aggregate, was acceptable to everyone. As Lawrence Susskind says in his blog on good negotiation strategy, working across issues to create package solutions is important for mutual gains outcomes.

We can’t wait to see if the final versions of Articles 3, 9, and 13 will stand up to their next test: the signing in Minamata!

Issue Overview: Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining

by Mark Staples and Danya Rumore

Throughout much of the world, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) provides subsistence livelihoods for more than 15 million people and produces up to 30% of the world’s mined gold.

Unfortunately, the sector relies heavily on mercury as a critical part of their gold extraction process. Mercury is added to ore to form a mercury-gold amalgam. This amalgam is then burned, causing the mercury to vaporize and leaving behind pure gold. While an effective process—one that has been in practice since at least 1000 CE— this type of mining leads to the direct exposure of miners to mercury, often with severe health impacts. ASGM is also responsible for the direct release of mercury into the environment and, according to the recently released Global Mercury Assessment 2013, small-scale gold mining is currently the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions. Additionally, ASGM drives a black market in mercury trade—check out Mark Staples’ blog on the illicit mercury trade to learn more about this.

Some nations, such as China, have already banned ASGM practices. Practically, however, these bans are difficult to implement. ASGM occurs almost entirely in the “informal section”—i.e., not as part of regulated industry—throughout the world, making it hard to monitor and control. As a result, the use of mercury in small-scale mining operations still occurs in nations that have implemented ASGM bans.

Despite the challenges associated with monitoring and regulating ASGM, acting to limit this major source of mercury releases is critical and possible. Accordingly, ASGM has attracted significant attention at INC5. The debate around article 9, which addresses ASGM issues, has focused on whether the import and export of mercury will be allowed for ASGM purposes, and if a phase-out date for ASGM will be introduced. In the next 24 hours, these are issues that will likely be resolved in balance with other supply and trade and products and processes issues. However, for now, it remains to be seen what will be decided.

Track us on twitter @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore to see what the negotiators decide on this critical issue!

Daily Roundup for INC5 Day 4—Wednesday, January 17

by Mark Staples

Day 4 marked the beginning of the second half of INC5. A lot of work remains to be done before a global mercury treaty can be agreed to, and the delegates were eager to get down to work in their contact groups.

Supply and Trade, ASGM, & Waste

Work continued on Article 3 concerning supply and trade in the selected technical articles contact group, focusing specifically on the notification requirements for mercury export and import. Delegates debated the merits of a mechanism similar to prior informed consent from the Rotterdam Convention applied to the mercury trade.  While such a mechanism would give importing states more control over the mercury trade, some delegates argued that it would be too burdensome. There was also debate concerning whether or not the trade restrictions should apply to mercury compounds in addition to elemental mercury.

As the contact group worked late into the night, they were expecting to hear back from drafting groups on alternative and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) issues and primary mercury mining, and intended to finish their mandate before breaking for the night.

Products & Processes

Because they were occupied with supply and trade and ASGM issues, the contact group did not devote much time to the product and processes text. However, co-chair Abiola Olanipekun did introduce CRP 14 in the afternoon plenary, which despite many remaining brackets, will be sent to the legal group for polishing before reconsideration in the contact group.

Financial & Technical Assistance

Article 15 on financial assistance was discussed in morning plenary, with all countries agreeing that a special financial regime is needed to assist countries in implementing this convention. While finances have historically been considered a “developed vs. developing” country issue, Switzerland made the point that effective finance is in all parties’ interests. After only short discussion, Article 15 was sent to a contact group that will meet tomorrow.

After a day of small-group negotiations, a revised Article 16 on capacity building, technical assistance, and technology transfer was presented as a package to our contact group. With only a few hurdles, it was fully accepted and was presented in this afternoon’s plenary session. Chair Lugris thanked this contact group for setting the tone of progress as he sent the article off to the legal group.

Institutions & Implementation

In the morning, a separate contact group was convened to work on sections of the treaty text related to definitions, institutional linkages, and implementation—an ambitious set of topics. Before lunch, the group set to work on the definitions of mercury, mercury compounds, mercury-added products, and use allowed. While it might seem like these definitions should be fairly obvious, delegates were on the lookout for any technical or legal ambiguities that could leave the door open for loopholes or non-compliance. Definitions were agreed upon for most of these terms, with the exception of “use allowed.” In the evening, the group divided into even smaller working groups for informal negotiations on the question of implementation/compliance/implementation and compliance committees.

Emissions & Releases

Delegates working on emissions had a productive day, generating papers on what kinds of mercury emissions sources will be included in the treaty, and making progress on the issue of releases to land and water.

Annex F on the included emissions sources is now nearly complete. “Sources included” now refers specifically to point sources from major agreed-upon categories, with only two categories still up for debate: iron and steel (and secondary steel), and open burning. The group seemed to reach a consensus on control measures for new sources, and is currently discussing the complex issue of addressing existing sources.

The MIT team enjoys a Swiss Break with some new friends. Photo credit: Earth Negotiations Bulletin: http://www.iisd.ca/mercury/inc5/

The MIT team enjoys a Swiss Break with some new friends. Photo credit: Earth Negotiations Bulletin: http://www.iisd.ca/mercury/inc5/

At the Swiss break, chocolate incentives were offered to spur the delegates. In the emissions contact group, the chair brandished the reward, and good-naturedly warned the delegates that he would eat all the chocolate himself if they did not finish the draft text on emissions promptly.

Afternoon Plenary

In an address to the plenary, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, along with Swiss Environment Minister Doris Luethard, urged delegates to forge ahead and to do their best to reach agreement on the treaty text by Friday. The Minister pledged 1 million Swiss Francs as an interim contribution to the future convention on behalf of the Swiss government, and the governments of Norway and Japan each matched the pledge.

The objective is to have the draft text complete by today, Thursday, at lunch in order to complete the treaty by 6pm on Friday. Will they make it? Stay tuned to find out! We’ll be eagerly following the proceedings on Twitter (@MITMercury) and here on our blog.

ASGM and the Illicit Mercury Trade

By: Mark Staples

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is a source of income for around 15 million miners in the developing world. Mercury is often used to separate and purify the gold from the soil and other sediments in the whole ore, and to pick up small amounts of gold.

Despite the environmental damage and health costs mercury causes, when it is boiled off from the gold-mercury amalgam, this practice is still widespread. Globally, over 700 tonnes of mercury are emitted to the atmosphere from ASGM each year, with over 800 tonnes released to land and water. These local releases can create significant health impacts in nearby communities.

In most developed nations, the use of mercury in industrial processes has tapered off as public awareness of its toxicity has grown. However, high gold prices continue to incentivize ASGM operations. As a result, mercury prices are correlated with gold prices.

This figure is taken from a study by Sippl & Selin, 2012.

This figure is taken from a study by Sippl & Selin, 2012.

Mercury mines are still open, primarily in China, and these sources provide a steady supply of mercury for ASGM operations in the developing world. In fact, a significant proportion of the mercury that is imported to ASGM countries and their neighbors is either mined in, or transported via, developed nations. This study provides some interesting insight into the global flows of primary mercury to ASGM practicing nations.

One of the greatest challenges for understanding the contribution of ASGM to anthropogenic releases of mercury to the environment is a lack of transparency and completeness of data. For example, the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database (COMTRADE), used in a number of analyses of the global flow of commodities like mercury, is voluntary and incomplete. Further, mercury is almost never officially traded for the stated purpose of gold amalgamation, making it harder to track.

While many countries, including China, Brazil, French Guiana and Indonesia, have laws in place to monitor or limit the use of ASGM operations, large volumes of mercury are still imported for gold mining. Mercury is often imported for ostensibly legal use in dental amalgams, but is then made available to miners in chemical or dental shops once inside the country. The ease with which miners can obtain this neurotoxin is alarming.

At the negotiations, delegates focused heavily on ASGM on January 14 at INC5. The proposed text, Article 9, addresses ASGM; parties are debating whether continued use of mercury should be permitted or whether it should be phased out. Brazil, Mali and the Alliance for Responsible Mining (an industry group), all voiced support for the continued, legal international trade of mercury for ASGM. These delegations argued that ASGM is going to happen regardless of the outcome of these negotiations because it occurs in the informal sector. Banning mercury trade would only criminalize an important economic activity in developing nations. Instead of effectively discouraging the international trade of mercury, a phase out of the permissible import of mercury for ASGM might simply force the trade underground.

I’m not so näive as to believe that including a phase-out date for the legal trade of ASGM-destined mercury in the treaty would be entirely effective. In all likelihood, the illicit trade in mercury that already exists will simply grow to fill that gap. However, I do believe that better monitoring and reporting on ASGM-destined mercury, in preparation for a legally binding phase-out, could only aid in getting a handle on this harmful trade and on the extent of ASGM as an informal practice. It would also allow miners and developing nations to transition to alternative ASGM techniques, such as gravity concentration, sluice boxes or cyanidation.

There is clearly some cognitive dissonance in the way in which mercury is traded and used by importing and exporting nations. It seems to me that this is an issue that needs to be resolved to help stem the flow of mercury that is harmful to both human health and the environment. I’m excited to see the progress that will be made on this issue this week.

For more information about ASGM, you can check out the NGO Artisanal Gold Council’s site and the recent report from Human Rights Watch. Here is a short video which explains how ASGM with mercury works:

History Of Mercury Use in Products and Processes

By Ellen Czaika and Bethanie Edwards

In preparing this blog post, we used information from Brooks’s 2012 chapter in Mercury in the Environment and Nriagu’s 1979 The Biogeochemistry of Mercury in the Environment, unless otherwise noted.

As with most elements, there is a fixed amount of mercury on the planet. This mercury cycles through the deep earth, the atmosphere, the terrestrial reservoir, and various water bodies on timescales that vary from less than a year to tens of thousands of years. Toxicity aside, mercury has many chemical properties that make it useful to humans. Thus, there is evidence that mercury has been utilized throughout antiquity. A human skeleton dating from 5000BCE was found covered in vermillion, also known as cinnabar (HgS). Another historic example of mercury use was found in a 15th century BCE Egyptian tomb ceremonial cup.

Humans have been mining mercury ore from the deep earth (the “lithosphere”) since at least the Roman times. The Romans operated a mercury mine in Spain with prisoner and slave labor. They used mercury as a pigment in their paint; mercury-containing paint has been found in Roman homes buried by the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE. The use of mercury in paint has continued into the modern area, although in recent history, mercury was added as a fungicide rather than for its chromatic properties. It wasn’t until 1991 that the use of mercury in paint was phased out in the US.

Aristotle is credited with the oldest known written record of mercury (in an academic text dating back to sometime during the 4th century BCE), in which he referred to it as “fluid silver” and “quicksilver.” This academic text conveyed what alchemists of his day believed: that mercury was the component in all metals that gave them their “metal-ness.” At that time, it was used in ceremonies and to treat skin disorders. In India and China, it was used as an aphrodisiac and for medical therapy circa 500 BCE. Chinese woman are reported to have consumed mercury as a contraceptive 4,000 years ago. Cinnabar is still used as a sedative in traditional Chinese medicine.

By 1000 CE, mercury was used to extract gold by amalgamation. The mercury surrounds the gold, forming shiny pellets that workers then burn. The mercury evaporates, leaving the purified gold. This process is still practiced by artisanal small-scale gold mining operations today, exposing over 10 million of workers to the toxic element and releasing between 650-1000 tonnes of mercury per year into the environment.

Mercury was used in scientific research largely as a result of Torricelli’s 1643 invention of the barometer and Fahrenheit’s 1720 invention of the mercury thermometer. While thermometers in the health care sector are no longer made with mercury, China still produces several measurement devices, such as blood-pressure meters, that contain mercury.

During the Industrial Revolution, various inventions increased the demand for mercury. In 1799, mercury fulminate was first used as a detonator for explosives. In 1835, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was first produced, the original synthesis of which relied on mercury as a catalyst. In 1891, Thomas Edison’s incandescent lamp contained mercury (to this day compact fluorescent light bulbs have mercury added to them.) In 1894, H.Y. Castner discovered that mercury could be used in the chlor-alkali process to produce chlorine and caustic soda. And during WWII, the Ruben-Mallory battery (mercury dry-cell battery) was invented and widely used.

By the early 1900s, the main uses of mercury were in making scientific equipment, recovering gold and silver, manufacturing fulminate and vermilion, and felt-making.  Of note, individuals who made felt hats displayed signs of dementia as a result of mercury poisoning. These “Mad Hatters” were referred to by Lewis Carroll in his book Alice in Wonderland.

By the 1960s, the production of electrical apparati, caustic soda, and chlorine accounted for over 50% of mercury uses. Caustic soda is largely associated with the paper industry; it is used to achieve whiter paper. With the exception of manufactures in China, chlor-alkali production has now shifted to a non-mercury method. However, the chlor-alkali industry still accounts for 1% of total mercury emissions to the atmosphere and potentially a much larger contribution to water and land releases.

Before 1850, the world’s supply of usable mercury was extracted from three mines located in Almaden, Spain (dating back to the Romans times); Idria, Slovenia; and Santa Barbara, Peru (which the Spanish controlled during colonial times). Between 1850 and the 1960’s, the Santa Barbara mine ceased production and mercury mining began in two other regions: in Monte Amiata, Italy, and throughout California in the United States.  The latter coincided with the Gold Rush. Since 1960, other mines have opened in the Soviet block countries, China, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Mexico, and the US state of Nevada. Despite the opening of new mines in recent decades, a report from the EU predicts that recycling of mercury from products and by-products could help meet the mercury demand and further reduce direct mining of mercury.

The historical use of mercury has set the stage for many of the modern products and processes that utilize mercury. It is estimated that, over the last 4000 years, historical and continued use of mercury have released 350,000 tonnes of mercury from the depths of the earth into air, surface land, and water, where it’s toxicity becomes problematic for human health and Earth’s sensitive biosphere.

Humans have been using mercury for various uses for much of history. These uses prompt mining and other ways of making mercury available. Given its long persistence and dangers to health and the environment, it is essential we figure out how to reduce mercury uses and anthropogenic releases.  Because mercury is a trans-boundary traveller, coordination and negotiation at the international level are essential.

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.

What to Expect from INC5 Day 3–Tuesday, January 15

by Julie van der Hoop

It’s Day 3 of the INC5 negotiations. By now, we’ve all become a bit more familiar the format of proceedings. However, our schedules are becoming more and more fluid as plenary sessions devolve into contact groups, which can have much more unpredictable (read: long) hours.

Contact groups are sessions that occur at the same time as plenary, where countries and observers discuss a particular subject of interest. These sessions are less formal than plenary, and are usually in English only (stay tuned to the blog about interpretation at the UN!). Here at INC5, the Chair has established contact groups to edit particular articles and subsections of the treaty.

That being said, today’s agenda doesn’t explicitly list any contact group meetings. Yet. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the first contact group meetings begin right after lunch, if not before).


Today is the day that we will have one of the negotiations’ biggest questions answered: what is a Swiss break? We’ve been invited by the host country to enjoy their hospitality over dinner hours, 18:00 – 20:00. But what will this Swiss break entail!? Stay tuned for Alice’s daily wrap-up blog, or follow us on twitter @MITmercury or at #MITmercury to find out.

Interested in particular aspects of the treaty discussions? @alicealpert and I (@jvanderhoop) will be covering continued discussions on technical and financial assistance. @Bea_Edwards and @lncz are staying late in the night for work on products and processes, and @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore are summarizing ASGM, supply, waste and trade. Check out @wolfeyp and @amandagiang for more general discussions on institutions and implementation!

Daily Roundup for INC5 Day 2 – Monday January 14

By: Leah Stokes

The second day of negotiations at INC5 was a busy day, without any Swiss breaks. Delegates spent significant time discussing key articles on Products & Processes, and Emissions & Releases. Here are some updates from our team’s observations on the proceedings so far. 

Products & Processes

The technical working group focused on products and processes started early and has powered through the entire day. There was a lot of back and forth between the US, Canada, EU, Japan, and the African Group on the one hand and China, India and Brazil on the other about phase-out dates. China was particularly persistent that they could not phase out mercury batteries by 2020, because there are no mercury-free alternatives currently available to China. Compact flourescents and lamps were also hot topics; negotiators broke off into a smaller group around 11:15 PM to try to reach agreement on mercury concentrations and phase-out dates.

The working group has a new co-chair, Donald Hannah from New Zealand. He delivered an inspiring speech at the beginning of the session and set some ambitious goals. “Finding problems with text is unacceptable at this stage of the process,” he told the delegates. “We are not going to let perfection get in the way of a good text.” His expectations for a cooperative and productive group have spurred the discussions forward. By 11 PM, it looked like negotiations on this issue would continue until the middle of the night.

Emissions & Releases

This morning’s plenary session kicked off INC5’s discussion of mercury emissions to air and releases to land and water. Countries noted that emissions and releases were “crucial” and “at the heart” of the treaty. In the plenary, countries sorted into supporting a more stringent approach, binding targets and techniques–option 1–or a more flexible approach with national plans–option 2. With the notable exception of the African Group, developing countries generally favored a flexible approach, while developed countries favored a more stringent approach.

After discussing key issues, the Chair arranged a contact group chaired by John Roberts (UK) and a negotiator from Indonesia. Meeting in the afternoon, the group was tasked with resolving issues around: the use and nature of thresholds to exclude small sources; striking an agreement on the strength of the articles by specifying the precise requirements and controls; and deciding what distinctions should be made between emissions to air versus releases to land and water.

At the end of this meeting, the co-Chairs formed a team to craft the first draft of a new, compromise article (between option 1 and 2) that will specify precise requirements and controls while allowing sufficient flexibility. They are working busily as we craft this blog post. The results of their efforts will be discussed again in the contact group tomorrow. In addition, plans were made for a technical group to provide guidance on the options and implications for various threshold levels and sources in the coming days.

Institutions & Implementation:

Today’s discussions on institutions and implementation in the plenary focused on links with the Basel Convention. Negotiators emphasized there is a need to clarify linkages with Basel, which focuses on chemical waste broadly, and the section in the draft mercury treaty focused on waste. The Chair mentioned that many delegates here worked on drafting the Basel Convention, so he hoped that they would draw their attention to this task. The US notably brought attention to the fact that they had signed the Basel convention; although they have not ratified it.

Definitions was another key issue. There are some proposals for redefining use allowed to ease some of the disagreements in ASGM. More broadly, there is increasing concern that the draft treaty text be consistent across sections, to ensure a smooth implementation.

Financial & Technical Assistance

Discussion in the Financial & Technical Assistance contact group began with restating country positions and then moved to defining technology transfer. It is still undetermined whether the treaty will include both “soft” technology transfer – including best practices and know-how – and/or “hard” technology transfer – namely, the actual technology. As a result, delegates have yet to negotiate a streamlined version of Article 16bis regarding technology transfer.

Discussion of Article 16, regarding technical assistance, centered around whether technological assistance will only flow from developed to developing countries, or will be exchanged among all parties. This discussion was facilitated by a colorful and popular metaphor of countries ‘dancing the tango and deciding who will lead’—doubltless, some stepping on partners’ toes will occur. As of 10 PM, it appeared that all parties would cooperate to provide [something], to developing countries in particular. What that ‘something’ is remains unknown. Although the chairwoman from Jamaica is providing firm and insightful guidance, there is still much to be decided in this area.

Supply & Trade, ASGM and Waste

Supply & Trade, ASGM and Waste were all introduced in the afternoon plenary session today.

On Supply & Trade, countries debated whether to ban existing and future primary mercury mining, with Chile arguing a ban would set a precedent for other treaties. In addition, the specificity of import/export procedures and their similarity to the Stockholm and Rotterdam conventions was a critical issue, as was the question of whether Prior Informed Consent was needed before mercury was traded.

On AGSM, parties discussed whether text should be included for the phase-out of mercury use in ASGM and whether paragraph 6, concerning financial and technical assistance, should be included or deleted. It was unclear whether banning mercury use in ASGM would just push demand for mercury into a black market.

Finally, on waste, the definition of “mercury waste”, and the use of “shall” rather than “may” were discussed in plenary.

The “technical matters” contact group was subsequently tasked with developing clearer text on all these issues. It is unlikely that the contact group will address these issues until late tomorrow.

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).

An Overview of Undecided Issues at the INC5 Mercury Treaty Negotiations

by Ellen Czaika

INC5, the International Negotiating Committee on Mercury’s 5th and final meeting in Geneva, started yesterday and continues through January 18 or 19 (depending on how long it takes to reach agreement). The discussions are working off of a draft treaty text compiled by the Chair based on the INC4 talks in Uruguay last July.

Several specifics of the treaty have yet to be agreed upon. Let’s look at an overview of what is on the table this week (see our Issue Overview blogs for more details on each of these topics).

Organizational and Implementation Issues

The exact wording of the preamble has yet to be agreed upon. It sets the tone and context of the convention text. Furthermore, the implementation strength of the document is still being debated. This manifests itself partly as a debate over the use of the seemingly similar but yet importantly distinct verbs: “are able to,” “may,” and “shall.” Also relevant to the implementation strength of the treaty, the amount and type of financial and technical assistance to be associated with the agreement is far from settled.

The level of trade transparency is also in question. This issue relates to the amount of insight nations give into their mercury trade and raises questions about monitoring and data reporting.

Another discussion to be made is whether to use the words, “implementation,” “compliance,” or “implementation and compliance.” Use of the word compliance implies the creation of an oversight body that monitors nations’ mercury mining, emissions, trade, disposal, and use. “Implementation,” when used alone, leaves nations responsible for their own assessment of adherence to the treaty’s regulations.

This discussion about “implementation” and “compliance” relates to national sovereignty. Each nation wants its sovereignty respected, but in order to protect its citizens from mercury, it needs other nations to reduce emissions and releases too. If mercury did not move around the globe, a more individualized approach could make sense. However, mercury released in one area affects people worldwide.

Furthermore, the negotiating parties have yet to agree on some procedural and timeline details, such as when the treaty will enter into force (i.e., become live) and whether there will be withdrawal periods.

Additionally and importantly, the parties have yet to agree on how to discuss health aspects within the treaty. This includes whether and how to regulate dental amalgams.

Emissions and Releases Issues

One of the items the Parties will be discussing is how to reduce human-caused mercury releases. They will discuss four main topics related to releases and emissions: sources, thresholds, control objective, and flexibility.

The sources can be categorized by time (existing versus future sources), by industry (chemical production, mining, energy production, product production, waste disposal, etc.), by geography (where in the world the release happens), and by economic or other necessity, among other categories. Should we control all categories of sources? If not all, which ones will be controlled? Should we allow some exceptions for industries that provide irreplaceable employment for impoverished peoples? (If you have thoughts about this, comment below!)

To be effective, thresholds need to be precise and emissions need to be measured to ascertain whether they meet the thresholds. There is debate about whether or not to set thresholds. If thresholds are set, expect long discussions about what those numbers will be. The range of proposed limits on flue gas emissions is 0.01 to 0.2 mg/m3 (for more about this, see our Emissions and Releases Overview blog)

Discussion around the control objective includes the proposing of emission limits, setting reduction goals, relying on best available technology/practices, or wrapping mercury control in with the control of other pollutants (such as others that are released when coal is burned).

The flexibility of the agreement is also in discussion. That is, should nations be in charge of their targets and limits or should there be UN oversight of direct, global targets and limits.

Products and Processes Issues

The draft text has adopted a positive list approach, which means that only the mercury-containing products and processes listed have to be regulated (watch for my upcoming blog on the differences between positive and negative lists). However, the specific products and processes to be listed remain to be decided, as well as their phase out dates (the draft text currently contains place-holder lists). Additionally, it is not a given that both products and process will follow the same type of list; one may be negative and the other positive.

Improper disposal of mercury-containing products can lead to releases of mercury into land and water. Due to its relationship with the product list, wording around disposal is still being decided, as discussed below.

ASGM, Waste, and Trade Issues

Although the parties have agreed on some components of the treaty in regards to trade, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), and waste, there are still several issues to be decided on these topics.

The threshold values of mercury producing facilities that must be identified and monitored within each national territory is still undecided. The higher the threshold, the fewer facilities that must bereported, and therefore potentially more mercury emissions that will be unaccounted for (but less need for monitoring resources). The lower the threshold, the more countries will have to spend on monitoring, but the more likely global mercury will be controlled.

On the issue of ASGM, the parties have not yet agreed as to whether the implementation of ASGM regulations will be contingent on the provision of financial and technical assistance.

In terms of waste monitoring, the parties have not yet decided about this convention’s relation to the Basel Convention. It is already agreed that the trade in waste will require written consent of the receiving nation. This is similar to the Basel Convention’s requirement for “prior informed consent.” However there are some parties to this mercury convention that are not parties to the Basel Convention. The INC5 negotiating parties have not decide whether nations that are not party to Basel Convention will have to comply with agreed upon transport controls, especially with respect to the informed consent and the take-back obligations of the Basel convention.

Technical Transfer and Funding Issues

Just as with any action, stopping mercury use has both desirable and undesirable consequences. Negotiating parties are trying to balance the desirable consequence (such as improved health for humans and animals) with the undesirable consequences. Some of the undesirable consequences include the loss of livelihood for those whose profession relates to mercury releases (people who work in the coal industry, miners, etc). Not reducing mercury emissions and not controlling mercury-containing products endangers the health of humans, animals, and ecosystems around the globe. Some of the people most impacted are those who work directly with mercury in conditions that lack safety precautions, such as workers in waste combustion sites and artisanal and small-scale gold miners. Finding other work for these often-impoverished workers is not as straightforward as its sounds. These workers are in a tough spot; they need work to be able to afford food and shelter, but their means of housing and feeding themselves and their families endangers their health.

Therefore, the negotiating parties will discuss means to facilitate developing nations’ creation of alternative employment and utilization of technology to reduce mercury emissions. Building this capacity in developing nations requires resources. One contentious part of this convention is who provides these resources to the developing nations and in what form.

When specifically discussing technology for reducing mercury emissions, the parties are considering technical assistance and the transfer of technology and knowledge (see our Issue Overview blog on technical and financial assistance for more about this).

Technical assistance and the transfer of technology and knowledge have the potential to create jobs related to the control of mercury, which might be able to replace the jobs that contribute to its emission. However, these types of jobs potentially require different skills and training, which is a non-trivial consideration.

This balancing of cost of implementation requires a mechanism such as a fund. The parties have agreed that there should be a fund. However, they haven’t agreed on who will contribute to it and who will manage it. Related to the management question is the frequency of reviews and evaluations of the fund. A major question on this front is whether the fund should be administered by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Presently, there are two options on the table for technology transfer. The first is that developed nations will create a mechanism for the transfer of technology to the least developed countries and small island developing states. The second is that the treaty will explicitly state what technology should be transferred.

The assistance issue relates very strongly to the viability of the agreement. If the means for implementing regulations aren’t available, the treaty becomes only words—and many parties probably won’t sign it. Hence, the discussion around assistance will likely be a very interesting part of the coming week!

Watch our blog and follow us on twitter @MITMercury. We’ll be posting details on the discussions and negotiations about these undecided issues as they emerge!