Countries Commit to Curtailing Mercury
INTER PRESS SERVICE
With a new international treaty, an increasing number of African countries are committing to phasing out mercury, a significant health and environmental hazard. Research has shown that maternal exposure to mercury from contaminated fish can cause learning disabilities in babies. When inhaled, mercury vapor can affect the central nervous system, impair mental capacity and, depending on levels of exposure, be fatal.
“Despite the danger that mercury poses, it is still widely used, especially in Africa, and this is of great concern,” said Olubunmi Olusanya of Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Environment. “While Africa does not manufacture mercury-added products, the continent is a leading importer of mercury. The ripple effect of using mercury is very costly in both human health and harm to the environment.”
The Zero Mercury Working Group is an international coalition of more than 95 public interest environmental and health nongovernmental organizations from more than 50 countries around the world, with several NGO members coming from African countries.
“Phasing out mercury will mean replacing mercury-added products such as thermometers, thermostats and batteries with alternatives, but it also means reducing and ultimately eliminating the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining,” explained Elena Lymberidi-Settimo of the Zero Mercury Working Group.
According to the group, artisanal and small-scale gold mining is a complex global development issue. It uses and releases substantial amounts of mercury in mineral processing, usually in unsafe and environmentally hazardous conditions.
Mercury is used to bind the gold to form an amalgam, which helps separate it from the rock, sand and other materials. The amalgam is then heated to vaporize the mercury, exposing miners and contaminating the environment while leaving the gold behind.
The Zero Mercury Working Group has ongoing intervention projects in Nigeria and Mauritius, focusing on phasing out mercury-added products by 2020. Other Zero Mercury project countries include Ghana and Tanzania, where the focus has been on reducing and eventually eliminating the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.