Every year, 2,000 tons of mercury end up in the human environment. Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal which gets into the food chain via water, where it concentrates particularly in the bodies of fish. It attacks the heart and the circulatory system and, if it is ingested regularly, can lead to kidney failure, respiratory arrest and death.
This week, in Geneva, a fifth and decisive round of negotiations has begun on an agreement to improve protection from the effects of mercury poisoning.
"We hope that these negotiations will lead to a strong international agreement, which will bring about a significant reduction in the global level of mercury pollution," Sarah Häuser, chemicals expert with Friends of the Earth Germany told Deutsche Welle. Specifically, that would mean that "new mercury mines would be banned and existing mines closed."
In addition, mercury should no longer be used in industrial products such as batteries and energy-saving light bulbs.
"The use of mercury in small goldmines must also be banned," said Häuser. "That is a big problem in developing countries."
Human Rights Watch estimates that 13 million people working in small goldmines around the world come into unprotected contact with mercury. Among them are many children, who are particularly susceptible to mercury's damaging effects. According to a report published ahead of the meeting by the UN's environment agency UNEP, mercury emissions in the gold-mining industry have doubled since 2005, and UNEP expects consumption of gold to rise as a result of the increase in the price of the commodity.
Human Rights Watch supports a demand that any mercury agreement should include a clause dealing specifically with the protection of health.
"There has to be much better education about the effects of mercury on children and adults, as well as about how one can protect oneself," Juliane Kippenberger of HRW told DW. Such education could be carried out by local health authorities and health centers.
HRW criticizes the fact that industrial countries have been emphasizing the issue of environmental protection in the negotiations: "It would be desirable if the Western countries, including Germany, would change their position and commit themselves to including a well worked out strategy on health issues in the agreement," says Kippenberger. "This is about the human right to health."
But for that, doctors and other medical staff in developing countries would have to be better trained, so that they could educate others and diagnose the symptoms of mercury poisoning accurately. "It's clear to us that one can't use the mercury agreement to reform the health systems in the countries of the South - that would be expecting far too much of it."
Asia- producer and victim
Almost half the world's mercury emissions come from Asia, particularly from coal-fired power stations fitted with inadequate filters. The main threat to humans comes from polluted rivers and lakes with contaminated fish. The UNEP report says that, in the last 100 years, the amount of man-made mercury pollution in the top 100 meters of the sea has doubled.
But, according to Elena Lymberidi-Settimo of the European Environmental Bureau, which brings together 140 environmental organizations, it's Asia which provides most of the opposition to binding regulations. "China and India want voluntary measures; they've so far rejected binding limits for mercury emissions, as the EU member states demand."
EU has to take responsibility
Another stumbling block in the negotiations is the matter of finance. "The donor countries and the developing countries are on opposite sides on this," says Lymeridi-Settimo, who has set up a "No Mercury" campaign. "The issue of financial support for developing countries will be decisive, but it will only be dealt with at the end."
Developing countries face the challenge of replacing mercury, which is still relatively cheap, not just in gold mining, but also in such areas as dentistry or in thermometers. Coal-fired power stations will have to be fitted with modern filters.
Sarah Häuser of Friends of the Earth Germany also demands that "industrial countries must support developing countries to develop alternative production processes and technologies."
But she admits that the EU has played a positive role in these negotiations, which began in Stockholm in 2010: "Compared with the rest of the world, the EU has made huge progress and has committed itself to a strong agreement."
Lymberidi-Settimo hopes that a mercury agreement will provide significant impulses for similar agreements on other chemicals. "One major improvement in comparison with earlier agreements is that commitment to keep to the agreement is linked to financial benefits," she points out.
Delegates from 147 states will be attending the talks in Geneva until January 18 under the auspices of the UNEP. The agreement will be known as the Minamata Convention, after a Japanese town at the center of a region whose population was severely affected by decades of mercury pollution of the sea. The convention will come into effect, at the earliest, in one or two years' time.