Author Archives: Bethanie Edwards

About Bethanie Edwards

I am a graduate student in the Joint Program between MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution working on a PhD in Chemical Oceanography. I am a member of Ben Van Mooy’s lab. My research focuses on chemical signaling and allelopathy between marine microbes and how this influences carbon flux in the ocean.

Reflections on INC5 (from Bethanie)

I will happily admit that going into the INC5 I probably knew the least out of our group about international negotiation. I study the chemistry of bacteria in the ‘twilight zone’ of the ocean. Consequently, my research does not directly intersect with policy often. So, I really did not know what to expect. I chose to cover mercury added products and manufacturing processes. I figured that my chemistry background and familiarity with synthesis processes would make this issue more accessible to me than say, covering financial assistance and capacity building. Before the trip I inhaled UN assessments, technical reports, and a few journal articles on the life cycles of mercury added products like compact fluorescent light bulbs. As my fellow MIT students discussed salience and legitimacy, words that I am still grasping the full meaning of, I mentally prepared myself to wander outside of my laboratory comfort zone and into the territory of global policy.

To my surprise the INC5 was not that intimidating after all. I probably helped that I had a bright, insightful posse of MIT students surrounding me. But it was amazingly easy to become enthralled watching delegates try to strike a balance between economic feasibility and environmental stewardship, trying to decipher the hidden agendas of each nation, and speculating as to whether a treaty with teeth would be the outcome of the negotiations. Below are a few of my observations

1)     Negotiations are a marathon, not a race. Even though all the really exciting stuff happened at the end of the week as the adoption of the text drew near, I caught the negotiation bug on Monday. I couldn’t pull myself away from contact group sessions that went until 1 AM even though the discussion was moving at a glacial pace. I was afraid I’d miss something important or a brilliantly funny analogy. I also couldn’t bear the thought of being late to Plenary in the morning, where we’d find out all the action that had occurred in other contact groups. So sleep became a rarity and by the end of the week I was exhausted. I’m not sure that it was totally worth it as I was so drained after the adoption of the text that I couldn’t even enjoy the champagne. But I did gain a better understanding of the physical toll negotiations take on the delegates.

2)     As I was often observing negotiations until the wee hours of the morning, I found out that Geneva is a beautiful city at night. I’m sure she is just as wondrous in the day time but Lake Geneva at night and the way that the evening is ten times brighter with snow on the ground is enchanting.

3)     I have a sneaky suspicion that debating whether to use the word ‘should’ or ‘shall’ in this or that paragraph is a stalling technique. In every contact group there were a few hour-or-more debates over word choice. In my imagination, a delegate in the financial assistance contact group is texting a delegates in emissions contact group, “Use the shall/should tactic NOW! Stall agreement on thresholds. I’m on the verge of securing $ for tech assistance.”

4)     The young guns were well represented in the delegations. Many key negotiators were under 40 which was inspiring to see. The people in the technical articles contact group became very familiar with my favorite young negotiator, Diogo Coelho from Brazil. Watching him time and time again stand up and represent the interests of Brazil (as well as other developing nations) as the more seasoned negotiators dominated the floor, one would never have guess that it was his first negotiation except perhaps because he doesn’t look a day over 25.

5)     The asynchronous nature of science’s ability to influence policy became very apparent to me. Good science does take time. But we can’t wait until the science is conclusive to start making policy; it would be too late. As a consequence, the policy decisions that we end up making may not be effective considering the actual nature of the problem. The 2013 Global Mercury Assessment was released while we were at the conference. New data shows that ASGM is a much larger contributor to emissions than previously thought, larger than coal. Imagine if that data had been in the 2009 assessment. How different would the adopted text be? Perhaps ASGM would have been the focus instead of emissions. How do we make international policy more adaptive to new scientific findings?

I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to witness the negotiation and adoption of an environmental treaty firsthand. UNEP is no longer this black box to me that you stick science into and somehow magically you get global policy out. I feel as though I have a clearer understanding of how the negotiation process works, the crucial role science plays, and the difficulty of getting an effective treaty. I also learned so much from my MIT cohort about policy, literature, Twitter, sad BBC mini-series, and Canadian politics.  I walk away from this experience with renewed interest in the intersection of science and policy, the influence of blogs, and the role of my generation.

The Curious Life of a Mercury Atom

by Bethanie Edwards

Hi, a mercury atom here. I’m currently floating in a water bottle of a delegate at the INC5 mercury negotiations in Geneva. As you know, the global community is coming together this week to negotiate ways to prevent my release into the environment. How exactly do I and my fellow mercury atoms make it into the environment to begin with? Let me share my experience with you.

For much of my life I was just a mercury atom sharing electrons with my best friend, a sulfur atom, deep in the earth as cinnabar. My potential toxicity was masked by my rosy appearance. I was expecting to spend my entire life nestled away in the Earth’s crust. But suddenly, I was startled, a loud persistent thud getting closer and closer. It was 1500 AD, and Spanish miners had just dug me out of my lithospheric home in the mountain-sides of Almaden, Spain. That’s when I began my journey, contributing to the 350,000 metric tons of mercury that humans have released into the environment over the last 4000 years.

Illustration from Erker (1574)

Illustration from Erker (1574)

After traveling to a monastery, monks began heating me up. I could feel my bond with sulfur dissipating; I was entering the vapor phase. I was collected in a distillation bulb as I evaporated, separated from the cinnabar. Little did I know, I’d soon be forced into a new partnership (albeit a brief one).

Once condensed into my liquid state and mixed with sluice from gold panning, my affinity for binding with other metals led me to bind together with all of the gold in the river bed sluice, separating the gold from the rock. When the rock was discarded the monks begin heating me up again, ending my short amalgamation with gold. However, this time as I vaporized, I escaped into the atmosphere.

The vapor pressure of mercury is very high, so I floated all the way into the upper troposphere and caught a wind current to the North Pole. Along the way I met a few other mercury atoms. Most of them had found their way into the atmosphere after weathering into rivers and then evaporating, or after being emitted from the eruption of a volcano. I bummed around in the Arctic troposphere for about 6 months.  As I recall, there were quite a few bromine atoms around. I ran into one, lost a few electrons, and then stuck to it. Then we began falling through the atmosphere, luckily there was snow to break our fall. There I waited until summer, when the snow began to melt and I was washed into a fjord.

As the summer progressed in the fjord, phytoplankton bloomed and then died. The bacterial populations began to grow exponentially and, before I knew it, the bacteria had used up all the oxygen. When bacteria deplete all the oxygen gas in an environment, they move on to using other molecules to make a living. Once they started using sulfate (SO42-), my old friend sulfur re-entered the picture. I bound with it and, not too long afterward, one of those bacteria sucked me into her cell. I’m not sure if the bacterium was just interested in the sulfur that I was attached to, or if she found me to be too toxic, but—to my horror—the bacterium quickly tore away the sulfur and stuck me with a methyl group.

Now, I’m not trying to be prejudiced against carbon, but it’s really not a good influence on me. I have enough toxicity problems on my own. And when I’m bound to an organic carbon, I can’t resist diffusing into organisms, be it fish, shellfish, or humans.  That is exactly what happened. After the water that I was residing in was re-oxygenated, a fish came along and I entered its body through the gill tissue, and as I was a methylmercury molecule by then, I wasn’t the only one to do so.

Eventually my fishy friend’s luck ran out; a fisherman caught him and cooked him up for dinner. I stayed inside the fisherman until he lived out his days and was cremated, and I was released back into the atmosphere.

I felt bad for the poor fellow but I was perfectly happy to be back in the atmosphere. I was looking forward to seeing the Arctic again. But to my surprise, I started falling to the Earth very shortly after being emitted. It must have been all the soot that I was associated with. I was deposited on the forest floor. As the seasons turned and leaves fell and decayed, I became buried in the soil. The rains came and went, but I stayed in the forest getting buried millimeter by millimeter deeper into the soil with each passing year. Until the day the fires came, that is.

Sometimes forest fires burn so hot that they scorch the soil. When this occurs, volatile elements like me can be vaporized and released into the atmosphere. While I will admit I was sequestered in the soil for quite a while, I did not expect to see so many other mercury atoms when I returned to the atmosphere. I met mercury atoms that had found their way to the atmosphere after being in fillings in people’s mouths, atoms that used to reside in light bulbs, several atoms that were used recently in gold mining in the depths of the jungle, and of course the atoms that were released from coal.

This time when I met and bound with a bromine radical, I was in the atmosphere over the Swiss Alps. Since Switzerland is a temperate region, it took much longer to get deposited than it had when I was in the Arctic. However, I eventually landed in the waters of the Alps and ultimately made it into the water bottle of an INC5 delegate.

Since I am one of 1.5×1015 mercury molecules in this water bottle alone, I sure do hope that they agree upon and sign a treaty with teeth!


Potential limits on mercury used in products and processes

By: Bethanie Edwards

What do compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), dental fillings, PVC, and paper mills have in common? The intentional use of mercury, of course! While toxic, mercury does have remarkable chemical properties that humans have exploited since antiquity. But, mercury added products and manufacturing processes increase release of mercury into the environment. Luckily there are a number of alternatives, restrictions, and control mechanisms that can be put in place to decrease mercury emissions from this sector.

While the mercury in each CFL has declined from 50mg to 2mg in the last three decades, 13% of the mercury contained in CFLs still makes its way into the environment over a product’s lifetime. Recycling bulbs properly and using protective packaging in transit can reduce releases into the environment. However, consumers should consider how their electricity source may influence net mercury emissions. If you live in an area powered by a coal, using CFL bulbs can decrease your carbon footprint and reduce the mercury being emitted into the atmosphere by reducing the amount of coal burned (remember, coal burning is one of the largest sources of mercury). But if you live in an area powered by hydroelectric energy, replacing all your traditional incandescent bulbs with CFLs will reduce your energy consumption but actually increase your mercury emissions.

Dental amalgams or “silver fillings” bind together mercury and other metals and cap the tooth, preventing further decay. Porcelain and compost fillings are alternatives. However, “silver fillings” are cheaper, more durable, require less skill to apply, and represent an important option as access to dental care increases in low-income countries. To reduce the amount of mercury emitted to the environment from the dental amalgam industry, porcelain fillings could be used when affordable or control technologies such as amalgam traps that prevent the mercury from entering the waste stream could be used when “silver fillings” are unavoidable. There is active discussion at INC5 on what to do about dental amalgams.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a widely used construction material. The original method for making PVC required mercury to catalyze the reaction. While a slightly less efficient mercury-free pathway has been utilized by most nations since the 1950s, China and Russia have yet to phase-out the mercury catalyzed method.

Chlor-alkali production also releases mercury. Paper production is the leading demand for caustic soda, a chlor-alkali output, which is used to bleach paper pulp. There are two alternative pathways for chlor-alkali production that do not use mercury. China is the major consumer of mercury in the chlor-alkali industry, whereas, over the past 15 years chlor-alkali plants in other countries have been successfully converted to membrane-based technology, which does not use mercury.

There are several other products and processes that utilize mercury such as, batteries, cosmetics, measuring devices (thermometers and blood-pressure meters), and electronic switches. Batteries have been successfully phase-out through national level initiatives in most countries. However, China still manufactures some mercury batteries as well as thermometers and blood-pressure meters. The US and other nations have also taken domestic action to phase out mercury in electronics. The graph below provides a breakdown of mercury consumed by geographical region according to each product and process.

Mercury used in products and processes in 2005 for each region. From the UNEP 2013 Mercury Assessment.

During the last negotiating session there was an on-going debate as to whether to use a positive or negative list to restrict mercury products and processes. A negative list approach entails a general ban on all mercury added products and processes with a list of exemptions. For example, if a negative list was adopted, all processes that utilized mercury would be prohibited. China could petition the UN to allow the continued manufacturing of VCM using the mercury until they could convert all plants to the alternative manufacturing method. A positive list would only restrict specified products and processes. So if VCM production was not listed as a banned or restricted process, China could continue manufacturing VCM.

Clearly, the negative list is a more aggressive way to reduce the consumption of mercury as only successfully petitioned products and processes would be allowed. However, for many countries the positive list is much more favorable as it ensures economic flexibility. China, the US, and Canada were strong supporters of the positive list. The African Group was a strong proponent of a negative list, reflecting the concern that mercury added products would continue to make their way into Africa as waste. The positive list vs. negative list debate calls into question whether targeting the product and processes that are the largest emitters is adequate or if all mercury products and processes must be addressed.

Right now the draft text lists a number of mercury-added products as to be phased-out by an uncertain date, although the list of products is subject to change as the delegates negotiate. Dental amalgams are subject to restriction. For processes, mercury use in chlor-alkali production is currently on the phase-out list with a date of either 2020 or 2025. VCM production is currently subject to restriction but is not banned. This is noteworthy, since in 2010 VCM production in China (East and Southeast Asia) alone led to more mercury consumption than all products and process in every other region. In short, this is a very important issue.


How the international community arrives at an agreement on limiting products and processes is sure to be a lively and crucial debate. Be sure to keep an eye out for a follow up report on how it all pans outs.