Mercury is a highly toxic metal that can damage the brain and nervous system and presents a serious health risk particularly for children, pregnant women, and women who are nursing. Mercury is a critical issue for international cooperation, because mercury emissions can travel in the atmosphere around the earth, far from their original source. In fact, approximately 70% of the mercury deposited in the United States comes from global sources
Without proper scrubbers, burning coal can release substantial quantities of mercury into the atmosphere, where it is carried great distances before it is deposited in oceans, lakes and on land. For this reason, coal-fired power plants are a major source of mercury pollution in some countries. Another major source is the use of mercury to extract gold in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Once deposited in the environment, mercury travels up the food chain, concentrating in the fish that we eat as well as in birds and marine mammals. Around the world, mercury levels in many important species of fish have risen to the point of being unsafe for those who rely on fish as a regular part of their diet. Indigenous peoples, especially those in the Arctic, are particularly impacted.
Minamata Convention on Mercury
The United States signed, and was the first country to join, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a global agreement to reduce mercury pollution, on November 6, 2013 at the United Nations in New York. The Convention entered into force in August 2017, and it now has 102 Parties. The Convention calls for Parties to control and reduce mercury emissions to the air from a number of industrial sources, reduce or eliminate the use of mercury in certain products and industrial processes, and reduce the supply of mercury by, among other things, ending primary mercury mining. The agreement also calls on governments to address the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, which uses and releases large amounts of mercury. It also includes provisions to ensure the environmentally sound storage of mercury and environmentally sound disposal of mercury waste.
U.S. Department of State Mercury Program
The U.S. Department of State Mercury Program promotes pilot projects that serve as models for on-the-ground activities to reduce mercury pollution. In addition, through workshops and other information-sharing activities, the Program assists developing countries in meeting or exceeding their obligations under the Minamata Convention.
Since 2010, the Department’s Mercury Program has awarded grants in key countries in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In facilitating these projects, the Program assists in coordinating effective engagement from organizations and stakeholders such as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the Global Environment Facility, Pan American Health Organization, the Inter-American Development Bank, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), non-governmental organizations, foreign governments, and U.S. embassies.