Tag Archives: mercury treaty negotiations

The INC5 Playlist…Because Every UN Conference Needs a Soundtrack

by Danya Rumore

It’s Day 5, and we’re in what could be considered the “meat and potatoes” of the INC5 mercury treaty negotiations. With only one—or possibly two—days to go, the pressure is on.

Perhaps this is why the UNEP Convention gods (or whoever decides these things) chose to play Queen’s “Under Pressure” over the loudspeakers at the end of Tuesday’s afternoon plenary session. A stark contrast to the relatively quiet dispersal that often follows the plenary sessions, the sudden blast of music startled many of us MITers out of our late afternoon stupor. And as we filed out of the plenary room—amused by the not-so-subtle musical message—we had an epiphany: INC5 definitely needs a playlist.

This conclusion has become even more obvious throughout the negotiation proceedings of the last two days: “Under Pressure” has been played repeatedly before and after the plenary sessions.  It seems that UNEP either has yet to download iTunes or they’re seriously in need of some musical inspiration.

Thankfully, we’re here to help. Who better to consult on music than a team of nerdy MIT PhD and Masters students?

So here it is: our crowd-sourced recommendations for the INC5 negotiation’s playlist, as well as some guidance for the appropriate moments in which they should be played.


The INC5 Playlist:

  1. Under Pressure” by Queen—as the UNEP has figured out, this song is basically always appropriate in a final treaty negotiation. The Freddie Mercury connection is also amusing.
  2. Running on Empty” by Jackson Brown—to be played during sessions going later than 11:00pm, particularly those starting after 11:00pm.
  3. We Can Work It Out” by the Beatles—to be played at the beginning of each contact group, particularly those that have been stuck on the same issues for multiple sessions.
  4. Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin—to be played whenever one party has stated the same point 3 or more times.
  5. You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones—to be played as a reminder that, well, you can’t always get what you want.
  6. I Heard It through the Grapevine” by Creedence Clearwater Revival—to be played in the interpreters’ booth (look for Julie van der Hoop’s upcoming blog on this topic, you’ll see what we mean!)
  7. Fernando” by ABBA—to show our fondness for INC5 Chair Fernando Lugris
  8. If I Had a Million Dollars” by Barenaked Ladies—to be played during all financial assistant discussions.
  9. Heat of the Moment” by Asia—to be played as the negotiations get intense; it’s amazing what happens when things get intense.
  10. The Final Countdown” by Europe—to be played during the last 24 hours of the negotiation.
  11. If an agreement is reached:Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis –triumphant celebration!  If not:  “Disappointment” by the Cranberries—you get the message.

Bonus Tracks

Just in case no agreement is reached by the end of the day on Friday and we need a little extra musical inspiration:

  1. Spectacles” by Jenna Lindbo—to inspire some cooperation (the refrain is “”Do you wonder what things look like in other people’s eyes? I’ll take off my spectacles and give yours a try. You should put on mine. I think you might be surprised to see what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes”)
  2. Mercury Poisoning” by Graham Parker and the Rumour—to motivate some action on a really important issue.
  3. Running out of Time” by Hot Hot Heat— to remind the delegates that, well, they’re running out of time.

What else should be on the INC5 playlist? If you’ve got any ideas for other tunes to include, post a comment below and let us know!



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!

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.

Issue Overview: Mercury Supply and Trade

by Mark Staples and Danya Rumore

Mark and Danya here. During the INC5 negotiations, we’re covering issues related to mercury waste, supply and trade, and artisanal and small scale-gold mining (ASGM). Here, in our second installment, we provide an overview of mercury supply and trade, discuss what is already included in the draft treaty text about this issue, and explain what is now being discussed and will hopefully be decided in the days ahead.

All mercury used in products and processes originates from deposits in the earth’s crust. Deposits are distributed around the world, with a large concentration in western Asia and China. Mines in Spain, Italy, and Slovenia were historically the main global sources of the metal, but most mercury mining today occurs in Kyrgyzstan and China.

Once extracted, mercury is traded as a global commodity. Annual international movements of mercury have historically been on the order of 1000–2000 tonnes per year. Nations that have existing mines aren’t the only exporters of mercury; a number of developed nations have existing stocks of mercury available for export, or they act as brokers between primary sources and importing nations.

On the issue of supply, the proposed treaty text bans new primary mercury mining and the export, sale, or distribution of existing mercury (except for the uses listed in Annex D II). While Annex D has been drafted, the specifics of the Annex are still being discussed, as is the question of whether any restrictions will be placed on existing mercury-mining operations.

The proposed treaty text also requires that parties identify all mercury stocks within their territory. However, the threshold size of these stocks is not yet stipulated. We expect that this will be a subject of debate during the remaining days of the negotiations.

In terms of trade, the proposed text mandates that mercury can only be exported for allowable uses, as described by the treaty, or for environmentally sound disposal. It also requires that exporting countries obtain written consent from the recipient country. This section of the text reflects the integration of the Basel Convention, which concerns the global transboundary movement of hazardous wastes, into the mercury treaty. Of particular importance, the proposed treaty text also invokes the principle of “prior informed consent” from the Rotterdam Convention. The specific responsibilities of exporting and importing countries, as well as the extent of guidance that the Conference of the Parties is expected to provide on this front, is and will likely continue to be the source of some interesting discussion among involved parties.

The mercury supply and trade issue is now being discussed in a focused “technical articles” contact group. We hope that delegates are able to make significant progress on this front in the hours ahead so that we can move onto addressing artisanal and small-scale mining, discussing waste and storage, and—ultimately—reaching agreement on an effective global mercury treaty.

Follow us on twitter @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore as we post live updates on the negotiations!

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:

Daily Roundup for INC5 Day 3—Tuesday, January 16

by Alice Alpert

Day 3 began with snow falling, turning Geneva into a winter wonderland.


Everyone eagerly anticipated the first of the Swiss breaks, to be held in the evening. However, we are no longer “early” in the negotiations, so parties were eager make some progress before the Swiss break festivities began.

Here’s a recap of progress made on different topics.

Products and Processes

The technical articles contact group made progress on setting the mercury concentrations that different types of lightbulbs can contain, although the phase-out dates remain undecided. A breakout group, facilitated by one of the co-chairs, was started to address the controversial dental amalgam issue.

The group is in the midst of working through the annex regarding products and processes that will be exempt from regulation: antiques were removed because they are not being currently manufactured; there will be exceptions for some research and calibration standards (although there is no consensus yet exists on the details); thiomerisol will be allowed as a preservative in vaccines; polyurethane, vinyl chloride monomer, and sodium methylate are still under review. The group discussed the idea of discouraging distribution in commerce as a process provision rather than an outcome provision.

Emissions and Releases

In the morning, a technical group of about 30 attendees was tasked with discussing possible options for characterizing the nature of emissions and releases regulations. The group agreed that it would be useful to narrow the scope of the treaty to major sources, but there was no consensus around the several threshold types discussed (e.g., do you regulate based upon capacity, intensity, or aggregate emissions?).  In the afternoon and evening, the full emissions contact group reconvened and agreed to eliminate certain small-source categories. Into the evening, they were discussing releases, looking to start forming some draft text. Memorably, in response to one delegate’s suggestion that a ton of mercury was a small amount of emissions,  another party replied: “No single raindrop feels responsible for the flood.”

Institutions and Implementation

The treaty objective and definitions were discussed in morning plenary, focusing on whether a dedicated, stand-alone article on health impacts was required or even warranted. The plenary was divided on the issue: one side was of the opinion that a separate health article duplicates other sections of the text and/or impinges upon the effort of the World Health Organization, while the other side sees a stand-alone article as paramount to reaffirming the objective of the treaty. Many NGOs submitted interventions supporting the health article.

Also in plenary, parties showed no movement on how to ensure domestic implementation, with many developing nations saying that a uniform requirement for submitting a plan to meet treaty obligations did not take into account differing national socio-economic conditions. In the evening, a contact group on the implementation and health issues met. Gridlock continued, and a small group decided to work through the night to submit a suitable proposal in the morning.

Financial and Technical Assistance

Much of the work in this area occurred in a small contact group of “friends of the co-chairs”, which continues to discuss Articles 16 and 16bis regarding technical assistance and technology transfer. Article 17—which concerns whether to establish a committee for implementation or for compliance (or both)—was up for discussion in the afternoon plenary session. Several countries voiced the opinion that they would like the membership of and mechanism for decision-making by this group to be specified in the treaty,  rather than by the conference of parties. These specifics will be considered in a contact group set to convene on Day 4.

Supply and Trade, AGSM, and Waste

Work in this area began at 11pm in the technical articles contact group, with a discussion of Article 3 on supply and trade. One of the biggest struggles involved whether existing primary mining should be banned; this decision is still in a deadlock. The group didn’t break until after 1am, and we can expect more work on Day 4.

Highlight of the day

After the second plenary session, the loudspeakers came to life with the song “Under Pressure,” (featuring Freddie Mercury)—just to drive the point home. Then the Swiss break began, providing delicious food, wine, and opportunities for delegates to work out compromises in informal consultations.


The Swiss break also notably featured video footage of traditional Swiss culture, including whipcracking and running around in leaf costumes, in addition to skiing and yodeling. While the Swiss music was questionable, the event did not disappoint. We look forward to our second Swiss break this evening, and hope that the negotiations make significant progress in the meantime.

What to Expect from INC5 Day 4–Wednesday, January 16

It’s Day 4, and the negotiating sessions are, according to the current schedule, more than half over! What have the negotiators done with all the time so far? They’ve discovered key areas of disagreement, and forged some progress on text in various groups. The plenary sessions are plodding and/or breezing their way through various articles while contact, technical, and drafting groups untangle the details.

The schedule has become fluid, but we expect:

  • A sunny day, rather than yesterday’s snow.
  • “Under Pressure” on repeat in the plenary before we start the day.
  • A late start to the first plenary.
  • Updates on progress from the groups dealing with “Selected Technical Articles” (a.k.a. the “Mega-Contact Group”), Emissions and Releases (a.k.a. my personal favorite, led by witty UK delegate John Roberts), Health (a.k.a. “Guess WHO*?”),  Technical assistance (a.k.a. “Got Tech?”).
  • A polite and sincere urging from Chair Lugris for these groups to continue their “excellent work.”
  • The Mega-Contact Group chugging along continuously, tirelessly (and sleeplessly).
  • Optimistically: finalizing Article 3, 7, 8, Article 9 (ASGM) and maybe even some work on article 13 (storage and waste).
  • A drafting group to continue work on implementation plans.
  • A drafting group to tackle treaty text addressing releases to land and water.
  • A presentation by BRI-IPEN on mercury hotspots.
  • The legal group to continue their helpful work on reviewing some of the draft articles.
  • A small contact group called “Friends of Health” to discuss how to integrate wording on health into the treaty.
  • Another Swiss Break!

Stay tuned for Mark’s daily wrap-up blog, or follow us on twitter @MITmercury or at #MITmercury to catch all the action.

Interested in particular aspects of the treaty discussions?

An already-outdated snap of the day's schedule

An already-outdated snap of the day’s schedule – it’s a fast paced day!

Follow me, @BeckySaari, @NoelleSelin and @leahstokes for coverage on emissions and releases as the delegates try to tackle some text. Our friends are also tweeting away:

  • @alicealpert and (@jvanderhoop following technical and financial assistance.
  • @Bea_Edwards and @lncz will reflect on products and processes
  • @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore are tracking the hot issues of ASGM, supply, waste and trade.
  • @wolfeyp and @amandagiang tweeting on institutions and implementation!

*NOTE: WHO = World Health Organization

Issue Overview: Mercury Waste

by Danya Rumore and Mark Staples

Danya and Mark here. During the INC5 negotiations, we’re covering issues related to mercury waste, mercury trade, and artisanal and small scale-gold mining (ASGM). We’ll be providing overviews of each of these issues separately, to make them more digestible. Here, in the first of our three Issue Overview installments, we provide an explanation of the mercury waste issue, what is already included in the draft treaty text about this issue, and what is likely to be discussed—and hopefully decided—in the week ahead.

The use of mercury in products and processes has a long history, with evidence of human use of mercury dating as far back as 5000 BCE.

Although awareness of the health and environmental impacts of the toxic metal has resulted in reduced use of mercury in many industries, it is still present in many products and processes, including light bulbs, cosmetics, and chlor-alkili production. Many mercury-containing products eventually end up in landfills or other waste sites, and leftover mercury compounds from industrial processes often enter the waste stream. When deposited in landfills, mercury-containing waste, over time, releases mercury into the environment. More problematically, incineration and the combustion of mercury containing waste can result in a sudden and significant release of mercury directly into the atmosphere. According to the UNEP Global Mercury Assessment 2013, waste-related sources made up approximately 5% of global anthropogenic emissions in 2010.

While mercury in the waste stream is a pressing issue, the good news is that solutions are available. Controlling and reducing the use of mercury in products can prevent mercury from entering the waste stream in the first place. Since significant amounts of mercury already exist in products and waste, efforts to capture, contain, and recycle mercury-containing wastes are necessary.  Such efforts are already underway, such as the US EPA’s fluorescent lamp recycling program and guidelines in case of releases and spills. Further, emissions controls on waste incinerators can greatly reduce mercury output from waste combustion and should be implemented wherever possible.

During the INC4 negotiations in Uruguay, progress was made on the question of how to address mercury waste in the globally binding agreement. Most prominently, the draft treaty text includes the provision that all parties to the agreement shall take appropriate measures to manage mercury waste in an environmentally sound way, in accord with the Basel Convention. This part of the treaty seems to be generally accepted, although the question of how to manage the transport of mercury across international boundaries in circumstances where the Basel Convention does not apply remains unresolved.

On Monday, the articles of the draft text relevant to mercury waste were introduced in the plenary session. Switzerland, with support from the EU, called for bringing all definitions and procedures for the trans-boundary movement of mercury in line with the Basel Convention. Lebanon expressed a desire for standards specific to mercury waste disposal, and Chile called for a more clear definition of “mercury wastes”. Additionally, whether and how to make parties who have not signed or ratified the Basel Convention comply with transboundary waste movement regulations was discussed.

The draft treaty also includes text related to the identification and management of sites contaminated by mercury. This topic appears to be much more contentious than the topic of waste management. While the draft treaty includes language indicating that action shall be taken to reduce the risk presented by contaminated sites, it remains to be seen whether capacity building and financial and technical assistance will be a necessary condition of including this in the agreement. In the plenary, Japan requested deletion of the capacity building and assistance provision, while Brazil, Iran and Morocco called for its inclusion.

At the conclusion of the plenary session on the second day of official negotiations, the Chair elected to move discussions of the treaty articles on storage, waste, and contaminated sites to the contact group for selected technical articles. Before addressing these issues, the contact group must first work through the products and processes articles. For now, storage, waste, and contaminated sites are on hold. We anticipate they will be picked up again late Tuesday evening or, more likely, early in the day on Wednesday.

As developments emerge, we’ll be posting updates here on our blog and via twitter @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore.  Stay tuned!

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).