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International mercury agreement signed at Minamata

A global treaty to control the use and trade of heavy metal mercury has been adopted at an international UN-organized conference in Japan. It is the world's first legally binding agreement on the toxic substance.

Delegates from some 140 countries and territories on Thursday signed the United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury, which aims to curb health and environmental damage caused by the highly toxic metal.

The treaty was named after and signed in the Japanese city of Minamata, where thousands of people fell ill in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of industrial emissions of the toxic substance. Around 2,000 people in the city have since died from the illness, contracted from ingesting large amounts of mercury from fish and shellfish taken from polluted waters.

The disease they developed is now known as Minamata disease. Mercury poisoning causes damage to the immune system and disorders of the brain and nervous system.

The treaty will take effect 90 days after its ratification by 50 countries, a process which the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) expects to take three to four years.

Among other things, the treaty envisages the phasing out of many products, including mercury thermometers, by 2020. It also gives governments 15 years to end all mercury mining.

However, environmental groups have criticized the fact that the treaty fails to address the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, which directly threatens the health of many miners, including child laborers, in several developing countries.

UNEP has estimated that the cost of health and environmental damage caused by exposure to mercury can be set at $22 billion (16.26 billion euros). In a report entitled "Global Chemicals Outlook" published last year, it warned that the growing use of chemicals, especially in developing countries, where adequate safeguards do not exist, was increasingly damaging people's health and the environment.

tj/hc (AFP, dpa)

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