Fight against mercury: first Minamata Convention conference in Geneva

30.09.2017 - The first Conference of the Parties (COP1) to the Minamata Convention took place from 24 to 29 September 2017. This convention has been in force since 16 August 2017. It is a key step in the global fight against mercury poisoning. On 30 September 2017, the approximately 150 States decided to base the Convention in Geneva.

Mercury mine in Ukraine.
© Shutterstock

The environmental disaster in Minamata

In the mid-1950s, citizens of the small Japanese city of Minamata showed symptoms of a new disease, which included, for example, numbness in hands and feet or blindness, and in some cases led to insanity, coma or even death. Scientists could not explain the cause of this new disease, known as the “Minamata disease”, which horrified and unsettled the entire world as news of it spread through media like the photographic essay published in 1972 by Eugene Smith.

An investigation revealed that the disease was caused by mercury poisoning from the consumption of fish contaminated by mercury-containing wastewater from a nearby chemical plant. Approximately 17,000 people were evaluated for symptoms of the Minamata disease.

Mercury as a global environmental problem

The disaster in Minamata shows that mercury is not only poisonous to humans, but that the heavy metal is highly mobile and can, for example, enter the air and accumulate in organisms. Mercury poisonings are still a global problem that can only be prevented by global rules.

For that reason, Switzerland, together with Norway, suggested a legally binding international agreement on mercury management in 2003. This was negotiated until 2013 by the global community and was signed that same year in Kumamoto, not far from Minamata. Switzerland ratified the convention in 2015. The Minamata Convention came into force on 16 August 2017.

A convention with many areas of action

The Minamata Convention aims to protect the world from long-term mercury poisoning. One way to achieve this is to require exporters to inform recipient countries of the mercury-containing substances they export to them. This mechanism should make trade more transparent and give countries an opportunity to protect themselves.

Gold miners at work.
© SECO/Projekt-Consult

Since mercury binds easily to other heavy metals, it is also used in gold mining. In fact, workers who work in small gold mines where gold is prospected manually rather than through automated means are inadequately protected from poisonous mercury vapour. Thus, the convention requires the countries concerned to develop national action plans.

Switzerland is specifically committed to efforts to make gold more socially and environmentally friendly through the “Better Gold Initiative”. Furthermore, Switzerland participates in development aid: For instance, it has suggested mercury alternatives for Mongolia’s mining industry.

The Convention in Switzerland and its national implementation

The FOEN is responsible for the amendments to Swiss legislation in connection with the national implementation of the convention. Specific points will be added to four ordinances in total. The related public consultation took place in the fall of 2016. The Federal Council's decision on the revised ordinances is expected in 2017.

The planned additions to the chemical and waste legislation are meant to ensure that recycled mercury in Switzerland is removed from the global market and stored using an environmentally sound method. A system of controls will be included in the legislation for mercury imports and exports.


Minamata Convention sets up office in Geneva

On 30 September 2017, the approximately 150 States meeting in Geneva for the first Conference of the Parties (COP1) to the Minamata Convention on Mercury decided to base the Convention in Geneva. “The arrival of the Secretariat of the Minamata Convention will be a boost for Geneva as center of the international environment governance,” said Marc Chardonnens, President of the COP and Director of the Federal Office for the Environment, welcoming the decision.

Further Informations

Last modification 30.09.2017

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