U.N. urges crackdown on mercury to protect health

OSLO (Reuters) - Environment ministers must crack down on mercury poisoning to protect the health of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) said on Sunday.

“A clear and unequivocal vision of a low mercury future needs to be set,” UNEP head Achim Steiner said on the eve of a February 16-20 meeting in Nairobi of environment ministers who will consider a new strategy to limit mercury. “Inaction on the global mercury challenge is no longer an option.”

Ministers “can take a landmark decision to lift a global health threat from the lives of hundreds of millions of people” by agreeing a new strategy to tackle mercury after seven years of talks, he wrote in a statement.

About 6,000 tonnes of mercury -- a heavy metal known for more than a century to damage the human nervous system -- enter the environment every year. Mercury’s other effects include liver damage, memory loss or disturbances to vision.

Of the total, 2,000 tonnes is from coal burned in power stations and homes. Increased use of coal in Asia means emissions may be rising, he said.

“No one alive today is free from some level of mercury contamination,” he said. “”The World Health Organization argues there is in the end no safe limit.”

The new strategy under consideration at UNEP’s annual governing council meeting would cover reducing demand in industrial products and processes, ranging from gold mining to some liquid crystal displays. It would also seek to cut emissions to the atmosphere and clean up contaminated sites.

The European Union favors an international treaty to ban mercury while some other states favor a voluntary approach. The United States and the EU have backed export bans, Steiner said.

“In the United States 1 in 12, or just under five million females, have mercury above the level considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” he said.

In Sweden, about 50,000 lakes have pike with mercury levels exceeding international health limits. “Women of child-bearing years are advised not to eat pike, perch, burbot and eel at all: the rest of the population only once a week,” he said.

In many developing nations gold prospectors use mercury in small-scale mines. Mercury helps isolate gold.

“An estimated 10 million miners and their families may be suffering in countries from Brazil and Venezuela to India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe from poisoning or exposure,” he said.

“The victims are among the poorest people in the world.”

“We estimate that every kilogram (2.2 lbs) of mercury taken out of the environment can trigger up to $12,500 worth of social, environmental and human health benefits,” he said.

Editing by Janet Lawrence