Geneva — Health ministers should pledge to take comprehensive action to prevent and treat the negative health effects of mercury, a toxic chemical, Human Rights Watch said today. The World Health Assembly is scheduled to discuss a resolution on the new international treaty on mercury, the Minamata Convention, on May 21, 2014.
The World Health Assembly is an annual gathering of health ministry officials from around the world. It is the decision-making body for the World Health Organization (WHO).
"For too long, mercury exposure has been a neglected health issue," said Juliane Kippenberg, senior children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "This week's meeting is a unique chance for health ministries to push the issue of mercury poisoning up the international health agenda."
Mercury is a highly toxic liquid metal that attacks the central nervous system and remains in the environment for long periods of time. It is particularly harmful to children. Much of the world's mercury is used in small-scale gold mining, where an estimated 15 million adults and children use it on a regular basis to retrieve the gold, most of them unaware of its health risks. The mercury is mixed into the ore to create an amalgam, and then burned off, releasing toxic vapors.
Human Rights Watch has documented the harmful use of mercury by child and adult laborers in Mali, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea. Its investigations have also found that government measures to prevent, test, and treat mercury-related conditions in mining areas are often inadequate.
In Papua New Guinea, a doctor told Human Rights Watch researchers about the impact of mercury on small-scale gold miners: "We have dozens of cases of mercury poisoning... . They stare blankly at the wall. You cannot talk to them, they are not conversant, nothing. They are like zombies. And we have several cases that did not recover." During a Human Rights Watch investigation in Tanzania, a medical officer in a mining area expressed concern that health workers were "failing to diagnose" people suffering from mercury poisoning because they lack training in the issue.
The new Minamata Convention obliges governments to protect small-scale mining communities from mercury exposure and to develop health strategies for them, including through health worker training, awareness-raising, and data-gathering. In addition, the treaty calls upon governments to prevent and treat all populations affected by mercury, and to strengthen the capacities of health professionals to cope with mercury-related sickness.
"It is vital for public health services to diagnose, test, and treat mercury exposure, and train and equip health workers to do that," Kippenberg said. "Health ministries should start by conducting surveys in hot spots to identify patients with symptoms of mercury poisoning. The message health ministers should take home is that they need to act quickly to address the threat of mercury."
The Minamata Convention on Mercury was adopted with the approval of 139 governments on October 10, 2013, in Japan. The treaty is named after the Japanese town of Minamata, where one of the worst mercury poisoning disasters in history occurred in the 1950s, after a chemical factory polluted the bay with mercury. According to official figures, 1,700 people died, but the real number is believed to be much higher. In addition, tens of thousands more suffered life-long disability, including brain damage, intellectual disabilities, birth defects, and other health problems. Many of the victims were children.
The treaty targets a number of harmful mercury-related products and processes. With regard to small-scale gold mining, governments are required to seek to eliminate particularly harmful practices, such as burning the gold-mercury amalgam in residential areas. While the treaty fails to set an end-date for eradicating the use of mercury in mining, it obliges governments to reduce mercury use and promote mercury-free alternative methods.
The convention will enter into force when 50 governments have ratified it. So far, only one country - the United States - has deposited an "instrument of acceptance" with the United Nations, though many countries are preparing the treaty for parliamentary approval.
"Health ministers should urge their governments to ensure speedy signing and ratification of the treaty," Kippenberg said. "By acting now, they can spare future generations the fate of the people of Minamata."