Tag Archives: history

Forty Years of International Mercury Policy: the 2000s and beyond (Part 3 of 3)

By: Noelle Selin

In previous posts, we looked at the evolution of international mercury policy in the 1970s and 1980s-1990s. By the 2000s, countries began to realize that addressing the mercury problem would require global-scale action.

From the UNEP "Time to Act "report
Timeline of global mercury events from the UNEP “Time to Act” report

The process towards a global treaty began with a scientific assessment report, the 2002 Global Mercury Assessment. A main conclusion of that assessment was that there was sufficient evidence of significant global adverse impacts to warrant international action to reduce the risks to human health and/or the environment arising from the release of mercury into the environment. In 2003, in response to this report, the UNEP Governing Council launched a voluntary programme to address mercury. Between 2003 and 2009, this programme organized a series of awareness-raising workshops, developed guidance and training materials, and established a clearinghouse for mercury-related information. Much of this work was conducted under the auspices of mercury partnerships, which began in 2005 (see our blog post on that topic).

The UNEP Governing Council in 2009 established a mandate to begin negotiations for a global, legally-binding mercury treaty [pdf]. An ad-hoc open-ended working group met to prepare for the beginning of negotiations in 2009 in Bangkok. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee process began with a first meeting in Stockholm in June 2010. A second meeting was held in Chiba, Japan in January 2011, a third in Nairobi in November 2011, and a fourth in Punta del Este, Uruguay in July 2012. We are now in Geneva for the fifth and (hopefully) final session, before a treaty is expected be signed in Minamata, Japan in October 2013. More information about the negotiating process to date is available from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin.

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.

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).


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]

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]